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The Growth of Early Christianity: A Clarification

In my last post I was discussing why / how Christianity succeeded in taking over the Empire, and a number of readers have pointed out that the conversion of Constantine had something to do with it.  Yes indeed!!  Constantine had EVERYTHING to do with it.  If he/that hadn’t happened, there’s no telling what would have been.   Constantine was the real game-changer.  But my post (I wasn’t clear about this: my mistake) wasn’t dealing with the cataclysmic events of the fourth century; I was trying to talk about what was going on *before* the game changed.

The question I had and have is how Christianity managed to grow exponentially from the time of the apostles up to the early fourth century, when everything took a radical turn with the conversion of the emperor (which led, before century’s end, to Christianity becoming the state religion!).   If we assume that the New Testament is basically right, just for the sake of the argument (and in this it cannot be wrong by much, any way you look at it) that sometime after Jesus’ death around the year 30 there were, say, 20 followers who believed that he had been raised from the dead and was exalted to heaven as the Lord, how is it that by the time of Constantine, less than 300 years later, these 20 had managed to grow to make up 5% of the Empire or so – that is, 3 *MILLION* Christian (if the empire is 60 million people, as most historians guess, and Christians at that point were about 1/20 of the total, again, as good historians guess, for a variety of reasons).

How do you get from 20 to 3,000,000, in just under three centuries?  That’s the question I was trying to address.   And the more I think about it, the more interesting the problem becomes.  What exactly were these Christians saying (or doing) that was so compelling?  I know what conservative theologians and believers would say, but my question is what historians (whether believers or not) would say.  Let me stress, this is a matter of ongoing interest among scholars: I mentioned three of the important books in my previous post, and there are others!   But none, in my opinion, quite nails it.

Why Did “Orthodox” Christianity Win?
Why Did Christianity Succeed?



  1. Avatar
    jimmo  June 20, 2012

    Just to check my swiss-cheese memory, although Constantine was the initiator, Christianity didn’t actually become the official religion until Theodosius and his Edict of Thessalonica, Is that correct?

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    Johnny D. Hinton  June 20, 2012

    According to Rodney Stark in his book “The Rise of Christianity”, the church grew to 34 million by 350 AD.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2012

      These demographics are very hard to work out. I tend to trust Ramsey MacMullen more (he’s an expert in the ancient materials, unlike Stark). He is a bit more conservative in his figures..

      • Avatar
        Jim Joyner  June 21, 2012

        Ramsey MacMullen discusses differing population estimates in his 2006 book, Voting About God in Early Church Councils.

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    gonzalogandia  June 20, 2012

    I like where this analysis is going. It’s really very fascinating insights. It will be interesting to hear your take as to the state of mind of the early believers, starting with the original “20”. Was their intention to deceive, or did they believe so much in the message of Jesus that they actually think they saw Jesus after his death? Or did Paul think that the story lacked “teeth” and invented the ressurection story? I’m wondering if it’s even possible to come to a solution for this whodunit story: who had motive to change the ending of the story?

    Anyway, it may be off topic but I’m sure you’ll touch on it one day…

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2012

      I don’t think they intended to deceive. I think some of them actually had visions — and the others believed them. I deal with this in my earlier posts on the resurrection, if you want to dig through the archives.

      • Avatar
        gonzalogandia  June 21, 2012

        Bart, thanks for the response. I would like to make a suggestion that might be useful for your readers…ok, ok, it might be useful for me! Could you categorize your blog posts by subject matter on the side of the site? For instance, under “Bart’s Recent Posts” have a section that has the growing number of subjects. I’ve seen this on other sites before and it is extremely helpful. In that way if you once again talk about the resurrection in September, a reader who wants to look at all the posts about the resurrection would only have to click the link “Resurrection” on the side, rather than trying to sift through all the earlier months. This might be too much work to organize now (?) but it seems like a trivial task for someone with your organizational skills! I realize you categorize them already, such as “Bart answers his readers” or “Public Forum”, but their not very useful, and I don’t think it will be very useful months and months down the road! There’s so much great information here, and it seems it will all just start getting lost under the mountain of posts this blog will accumulate over time.

        One more suggestion: can you put in an option to get updates in our email about the updated comments on any blog post? This is done in other blogs that I follow, and it saves a lot of time. It also allows to follow all the questions and your answers in the comments section…which are always just as interesting (if not more) than the blog post!

        Thanks! Great blog!

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2012

          Sounds tricky — but I’ll think about it. (So many of my posts have been on so many *different* topics!)

    • Avatar
      rbrtbaumgardner  June 21, 2012

      I don’t see the conversion process necessarily as one in which one person is a deceiver and the other the deceived. In her book Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens, Susan Clancy reports her research on how some people become convinced they were kidnapped by aliens. Briefly, Clancy elaborates the following points:

      • People who experience difficult or unusual things sometimes try to explain them using whatever information is available in their environment. They may continue to “try on” explanations until one “feels right” to them
      • Once they find a good fit, they begin to filter and bias information to strengthen their interpretation. Some people are willing to lose friends and endure terrible “memories” to hold on their interpretation of events and will not accept more plausible and less painful explanations.

      • Although scientists don’t accept anecdotal experience, it is nonetheless given great importance by most people because it *feels* real and fits their daily experience of reality.

      • Imaginative people, especially those with strong visual imagination, are prone to memory errors and under the right conditions can come to believe imaginary events are real. This is particularly true when people are encouraged over a sustained period to describe visual events in the presence of an authority figure who validates the imaginary events. Authority figures can consciously or unconsciously manipulate or reinforce certain interpretations when a person is in a susceptible state.

      I have no trouble seeing the application of these points to early Christianity and claims made in all sincerity of Jesus’ resurrection or of miracles.

      I also have some personal experience in this area. I converted to Mormonism at age 19 and then served a mission in the late 70s. I accepted what the missionaries taught me in all sincerity and as a missionary I was sincere in my belief. However, it isn’t only belief that is important . People convert to a faith most often because they have family and friends of that faith. (I was taught the missionary lessons in the home of a Mormon family.) During the process of being investigating the faith, potential converts get a lot of attention from adherents. Their changes in behavior and belief are rewarded in various was. They feel approved of. They feel liked. They also make commitments they would hesitate to back out of and make them feel part of the group. I experienced this on both sides as a convert and later as a missionary. My experience is the socialization that occurs in the conversion process is more powerful that the doctrine.

      By the way, I am not longer Mormon–or Christian for that matter.

  4. Avatar
    Jacobus  June 20, 2012

    What was Constantine’s role in the Christianisation of the Mediterranean world? Surely a great strategist like him, should have played some role in the spread of Christianity.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2012

      It was the key! As I mention in my subsequent blog. Absolutely the key!

      • Avatar
        Jacobus  June 21, 2012

        If Christianity was a religion of the lower classes and it also had the seed of rebellion against the Empire (as I understand Dominic Crossan, Hall Taussig, Marcus Borg, Richard Horsley and Matthias Klinghardt seems to postulate), could a “orderly social uprising” be also linked to the spread of Christianity? (My personal feeling is that a anti-colonialist reading of the NT is very one sided.)

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2012

          Interesting idea! I’d like to see it pursued….

        • Avatar
          Jim Joyner  June 21, 2012

          My apologies for repeating this recommendation, but much better than “peasant-leader-of-peasant” stuff and egalitarian movements (Borg and Crossan), and more relevant than 1st century Palestine, is: Luke Timothy Johnson, Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2009). What I believe you’ll find is a new approach to the social and religious dynamics of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, especially on pagans v. Christians. (Sorry for the duplicated recommendation, I do not share royalties or receive commisions).

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    SOBL1  September 3, 2012

    This is an interesting historical issue. I’d even say it is more interesting considering that the Christ figure was killed in what was considered a low status method (the crucification). I have a theory on this and it has less to do with the Christian belief system and more with the state of Roman society at the time as well as the pockets of early growth. I’ll admit that reading Gibbon’s the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire last year started me on this quest. Rome was on the decline, inattentive and inflexible to its citizens’ needs and Christianity offered an exit. My theory, int he link below, is a bit like the idea proposed by Jacobus a few comments up.


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