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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 Beyond (one chapter)

This will be a relatively brief section that crunches the numbers about how many people were converting to the Christian faith from the early days (say, in the months after Jesus’ death) and over the course of the next three centuries.  Some scholars have argued that for Christianity to have become massively important by the time of the Roman emperor Constantine (the first emperor to embrace the Christian faith, in the year 312 CE, as I will discuss below), it was not necessary to have massive conversions at peak moments as in modern evangelistic campaigns (Billy Graham Crusades, and the like).  What was needed was a steady growth.  One scholar has argued that the Christian church needed to increase its numbers by about 40% per decade, from the year 40 to the time of Constantine.  Provocatively, this is almost exactly the rate of growth ….

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The Death of Paul in Acts and Unrelated Topics: Readers’ Mailbag April 29, 2016
From Jewish Sect to Gentile Church



  1. talmoore
    talmoore  April 28, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, when I read apologists such as Justin Martyr, I notice they point out that much of scaffolding had already been erected by the pagan religions and pagan philosophers. For example, many pagans already believed in a cycle of epochs — from the golden age of gods and heros down to the current, corrupt age of lesser men separated from the gods — and that as the epochs become more and more corrupt God or the gods will destroy this corrupt world in a great conflagration, replacing it with a renewed, uncorrupted epoch — and thus starting the cycle over again (cf. the Genesis Flood myth).

    Now, of course, this sounds a lot like the coming destruction and Kingdom of God preached and prophecied by the Jews (and Jesus!). The main difference is that the Jews believed that once God destroys and replaces the corrupt current world with the World to Come, then He will finally be finished destroying and rebuidling the world. He will finally conquer all the forces of evil and corruption so that He will no longer need to continue the cycle, in perpetuity. Apart from this notion of ending the cycle, what the Jews believed was not at all foreign to most pagans, both the laity and scholars.

    Another example is the notion of a savior from heaven come down, often in human form, to warn and save humanity. This idea was also readily familiar to pagans, with endless examples within their mythologies: Zeus, Heracles, Mithra, Krishna, et al. Indeed, the epithet Savior (soter) was so commonly added to the members of the Greco-Roman pantheon that most pagans would have been primed to accept that a divine being came down to earth in the form of a man in order to save humanity. This would not have been a strange notion at all to them.

    So, in other words, much of the groundwork had already been laid for pagans to accept Christian tenets. The only obstacle was the other religions that Christianity had to compete with that, themselves, offered similar promises of salvation, such as Manichaeism. And I think it was at these margins that we can see why Christianity won out, while Manichaeism was relegated to the footnotes of history. At that point it merely becomes a comparison of sales tactics. The Christians simply had a better product and a better sales pitch.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2016

      Yes, I’ve become especially interested, along this line, in the emergence of different kinds of “monotheism” in pagan circles as a context within which Christians proclaimed their faith.

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        llamensdor  April 28, 2016

        You think the Jesus followers were inspired by pagan, not Jewish “monotheism?” Reza Aslan has stated that it is foolish to believe the Jews invented monotheism–he attributes it to Zoroaster. And, of course Aslan is one of our most reliable experts on Jesus–as he often tells us.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  April 29, 2016

          If you read what the pagans wrote about the Jews, it wasn’t the Jews’ monotheism that they found odd. It’s the fact that the Jewish temple had no god inside of it. That is to say, the Jews didn’t represent their god with some form of statue or image. The Holy of Holies in the Temple was literally empty. The notion of an all-powerful Creator godhead wasn’t that odd to the pagans. The lack of a physical representation is what the pagans found odd.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 1, 2016

            My sense is that it was both things.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  May 16, 2016

        Two points about your description of the Christian religion as evangelistic. Christianity was indeed exclusive (while most pagan religions weren’t), I suspect that it was the threat that went along with it. I think the sales pitch was an old and established one: first you sell them the problem (we/they are fallen); then you sell them the solution (salvation). It’s partly like the veiled threat in Pascal’s Wager that can, once heard, haunt one forever with thoughts of, “What if they’re right?” It’s a common criticism one hears from especially atheistic non-Christian–that it was all based on fear. I think that was a big part of it. We still see it today.
        2. It might have been Robin Lane Fox in his Pagans and Christians where I read that, at the time of Jesus, as much as 10% of the population around the Mediterranean was Jewish. I can’t remember what those pagans who admired and were close to Jewish communities, even attending synagogues, but if Jews had small communities (all?) around the Mediterranean and comprised 10% of the population and each of those communities had some number of pagans admiring the religion but not ready to convert because of circumcision and having to follow the (613?) teachings, many might have jumped at the opportunity to “become” part of God’s children through Christianity. If we only knew how many such pagan “friendlies” there were. …

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    Hficher  April 28, 2016

    I think the main appeal of the Christian faith was and is the promise of eternal life.

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    SidDhartha1953  April 28, 2016

    You have argued that no Jews in Jesus’s lifetime expected the Messiah to be killed before being installed as the King of Israel. But David B. Levinson in his essay, “Messianic Movements” (The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Oxford, 2011) cites 4 Ezra 7:9-32:

    29″After these years, my Son the anointed one and all who have human breath will die. 30The world will be turned back to primeval silence for seven days, as in the earliest beginnings so that no one is left alive. 31After seven days, the world that isn’t yet awake will be roused, and the corrupt world will die. 32The earth will give back those who sleep, and the dust will give back in silence those who dwell in it, and the resting places will give back the souls that have been entrusted to them.”
    Common English Bible (2010-09-01). CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha – ePub Edition (Kindle Locations 66783-66787). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

    Could Jesus and his followers have been aware of this prediction? It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch for his followers, after his death, to spiritualize the reference to all humans dying with the Messiah. Paul certainly thought it was so for believers (Romans 6:8). That might account for the extreme urgency with which they spread the good niews of his imminent return.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 29, 2016

      Does he date 4 Ezra earlier than the life of Jesus? I’m not sure how it can be!

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  April 29, 2016

        He gives no date, which surprised me. I presumed he thinks it’s pre-Christian, or at least reflects pre-Christian influence.

        • Avatar
          SidDhartha1953  April 30, 2016

          Lawrence Wills, in the same volume, refers to 2nd/4th Ezra as a Jewish text “of this period.” I suppose he could mean Mark, not Jesus’s period.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 1, 2016

            He must mean “roughly,” since it also is written after the fall of Jerusalem, but probably before the early 2nd c.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 1, 2016

          The book presupposes the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, and is almost always dated to about 100 CE.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  May 16, 2016

      That might have helped believers after Jesus’ death explain his death (and resurrection) but , if it was written before Jesus’ life, it was not used to shape any expectation that the messiah would die.

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    john76  April 28, 2016

    Sometimes theories need to reconcile apparently contrary pieces of evidence. For instance, more liberal scholars will usually say the historical Jesus was thought of as a traditional type of Messiah, so the crucifixion would have been contrary to this. On the other hand, conservative scholars will point to Jesus’ atoning death (e.g., “For even the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many, Mark 10:45.”), and argue the crucifixion fits in nicely with this. Mark seems to display both sides, so there appears to be contrariety here. But this tension seems to be relieved when we affirm that the crucifixion was not part of what the disciples thought would happen to Jesus (as evidenced by the clash between the disciples and the arresting party), and yet Jesus seemed to think that his atoning death was the plan God had set aside for him (as we see when Jesus petitions God in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane to get out of this role). There are apparently two levels to the crucifixion story in Mark: The irony of one where Jesus is a failed messiah, and the other where he bears the sin debt of humanity. I like questions of interpretation like these, which are much more interesting ways into the texts than silly mythicist speculations.

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    joewaters  April 28, 2016

    Interesting. So part of the explanation for how Christianity grew so much in the beginning is that Christians argued “My God is stronger than your God”! And they felt they had the proof to back it up – or were they just better at telling stories about Jesus’ power? What made Jesus’ powers so seductive to ancient audiences?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 29, 2016

      They certainly told good stories — not just about Jesus’ power but about the power of his followers!

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        jhague  May 2, 2016

        Could it be that Christianity was able to grow due to miraculous stories because of the ancients being uneducated and superstitious?
        I know that people today believe the miracles but that is due to the religion being handed down through families. The children grow up believing what their parents believe.
        In ancient times, the male head of the household had to be converted and the family followed.
        Would as many ancient men have converted if they would have been educated and less gullible to believe super-natural stories?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 3, 2016

          I’m not sure it was a matter of gullibility. The majority of people today believe such stories, and are *highly* educated!

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            jhague  May 3, 2016

            Right. But today the majority of people are not converting. They are born into a religion like you and me.
            Back then there had to be an actual conversion from praying and sacrificing to all the available gods to just one god.
            If the miraculous stories are what caused the male heads of households to make this conversion and they obviously did not actually see any miracles, there has to be some gullibility.
            I’m not sure what you call it when highly educated people today continue to believe stories because the stories are part of Christianity even though they dismiss similar stories from other religions.

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    Jim  April 28, 2016

    Paul’s letters were mainly responses to housekeeping problems, other than his letter to the preexisting Christian church(s) in Rome, but his letters don’t seem to provide much info on Jesus’ life story. Regarding your point 1 (the evangelistic factor), in your estimation, how influential was this evangelistic factor in catalyzing the need for preparing gospels as tools that convey human life stories about Jesus? Or were the gospel stories more or less in house materials (like Paul’s letters) that sort of just leaked out at some point.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 29, 2016

      My sense is that the Gospels were written for insiders, not outsiders, but they provided the kind of basis believers needed for sharing their beliefs with others.

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    dragonfly  April 28, 2016

    I get the sense Justin felt the Christian faith was the most moral. He was clearly on a personal search and had been dissatisfied with everything he had tried so far, until he discovered Christianity.

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    john76  April 29, 2016

    There seems to be few problems presented to the conservative theological position more perplexing than reconciling the low Christology of Jesus in the gospel of Mark with the high Christology of Jesus in the gospel of John. In Mark, we find Jesus as a fallible human prophet who is unable to perform miracles in his home town (see Mark 6:5), and in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane begging God to release him from his fate (see Mark 14:32-42). By contrast, in the gospel of John, Jesus is the word who is God (see John 1:1-3), and “was” before Abraham was born (see John 8:56-59). Mark and John appear to present two fundamentally different men when they portray Jesus.

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    Pattycake1974  April 29, 2016

    I know many people convert to Christianity because they feel convicted of their sins. Was it the same way in ancient times? Would that have had an impact on the growth of the Church?

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    Pattycake1974  April 29, 2016

    Many people convert to Christianity because they feel convicted of their sins. Was it the same in ancient times?

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    RonaldTaska  April 29, 2016

    To grow from a couple of dozen uneducated people to thousands of followers is really amazing. Keep going.

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    godspell  April 29, 2016

    Evangelistic–like Apple. Exclusivistic–like Microsoft Windows. 🙂

    I see what you’re saying, but I think there has to be more to it than that. We don’t know much about the so-called Mystery Cults, but that in itself argues that they were exclusive–perhaps less effectively evangelistic, because of the secrecy of their rituals, but you can find that in Mormonism as well, and there were aspects of it in early Christianity (partly from necessity).

    What Tertullian (obviously a biased witness) said may be a rank exaggeration, but Christians probably did have a deep sense of community, directly encouraged by their beliefs (by Jesus’ own words), and by their shared sense of persecution and isolation. Those who saw the way they were with each other might well envy that sense of community–and see advantages to it. They did well in business, quite often.

    So an open club–one anyone could join–there were certain inherent risks to joining, but most of the time persecution wasn’t that bad, and there were also benefits, that applied at all times.

    However, there is evidence they helped the poor without regards to faith. Not something other religions of that time could really say.

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