The early Church in numbers: Believable or not?

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  • CrœsosCrœsos Shipmate
    edited March 18
    mousethief wrote: »
    I can imagine Christianity (or any other rapidly expanding religion) saturating a market, so to speak, and reaching a peak, during which the numbers are fairly static. Then missionaries penetrate another market, and the growth is rapid, until that market is saturated, at which point the growth slows down again. "Punctuated equilibrium" if you will. I see no reason to think this is any less likely than a smooth, unbroken exponential curve.

    A series of S-curves does seem likely. On the other hand the overall trend is probably more interesting than the exact fluctuations. We've all seen that atmospheric carbon dioxide graph. Sure, there's a seasonal fluctuation based on which hemisphere is in winter at the time, but it's the multi-year trend that's the interesting/alarming part, not the seasonal variations.
  • Dave WDave W Shipmate
    I was thinking that 1000 new Christians in the first few decades might be likelier to be zealous proselytizers than 1000 legacy Christians a few generations in.
  • Interesting. I apologise if I've missed it but has anyone mentioned the 3,000 souls we are told were 'added' on the day of Pentecost?

    Do we understand that number to be actual or symbolic?

    I've heard it said that it echoes or parallels the 3,000 killed during the apostasy in Exodus.

    Does the 7500 in 100 AD take them into account? Should it?

    On the Mormon rate of growth, I presume that factors in those parts of the world where there have been 'people movements' towards Mormonism such as parts of Polynesia where the majority of the population of some islands became Mormons.

    What effect would regional growth have on the overall graph?

    I suspect we don't have to completely buy-in to traditions about the conversion of King Abgar (?) of Edessa to envisage that in some places there was a kind of critical mass or at least an influence beyond the actual numbers involved.
  • jay_emmjay_emm Shipmate
    I don't think regional growth does too much. if we have numerous small regions then it's much the same as individual people.
    You just divide the numbers given by 1000 and it's basically exactly the same (and all the underlying details will average out anyway)

    Similarly if you assume the region's under discussion are related to the size (towns convert towns, countries convert countries) you still get exp growth (unless the time for conversion also increases)

    On the contrary if we assume something like Roman and Gothic regions (with a single infiltration event of the other group at saturation) then you do get a noticeable difference at the 1/4 and 3/4 points of the timeline from a single s curve.
    However all the more realistic scenarios then make it closer to the single s curve.
    ___
    Regarding Pentecost it probably depends on the purpose of the exercise (and how sceptical you want to be).
  • CrœsosCrœsos Shipmate
    Interesting. I apologise if I've missed it but has anyone mentioned the 3,000 souls we are told were 'added' on the day of Pentecost?

    Do we understand that number to be actual or symbolic?

    Stark argues (p. 5) that the numbers given in Acts should not be taken as a literal census count.
    For a starting number, Acts 1:14-15 suggests several months after the Crucifixion there were 120 Christians. Later, in Acts 4:4, a total of 5,000 believers is claimed. And, according to Acts 21:20, bu the sixth decade of the first century there were "many thousands of Jews" in Jerusalem who now believed. These are not statistics. Had there been that many converts in Jerusalem, it would have been the first Christian city, since there were probably no more than twenty thousand inhabitants at this time -- J. C. Russell (1958) estimated only ten thousand. As Hans Conzelmann noted, these numbers are only "meant to render impressive the marvel that here the Lord himself is at work" (1973:63). Indeed, as Robert M. Grant pointed out, "one must always remember that figures in antiquity . . . were part of rhetorical exercises" (1977:7-8) and not really meant to be taken literally.

    So whatever "we" might think of the matter, that's Rodney Stark's take.
  • jay_emmjay_emm Shipmate
    Even if not a census 120* doesnt sound that unreasonable, we can account for, what 20 by name? (14 named in the chapter, 4 other luke-named post res appearances, 'his brothers'.
    With some obvious likely extras, and the writer clearly deliberately allowing space for at least some others. And it has been 40 days.

    * Not cross referenced when it's number and number and women/children. The ESV closer at hand had the 5000 as being half counted.

    The jump to 5000 isn't just a careless writer, as there's Pentecost in the middle with its 3000 jump. Also if course this being Pentecost in text it's explicit that a decent number are not only non-jerusalem Jews, but likely at least some non Palestinian Jews, and Pentecost is a bad time to use the resting population of Jerusalem.

    [I'd say 1000 is a nice number for plotting exp growth, as you can claim it starts mid Pentecost with it undercounting the first years or ignore Pentecost but reflects that the early years were early. Geometrically it's somewhere in the middle of v early church numbers. ]

    And not long after there are enough widows to cause issues, 7 are selected to do some duty. (though obviously it depends on what proportion they distribute to and how long that takes) to me that sounds consistent with a moderately large group than a small.

    James talk with Paul doesn't actually specify the thousands are in Jerusalem (but that Paul can see that there are 1000s in Israel).
    As by this time there's been stuff happening, you've had a (second) wave of expansion that goes into the eastern med, and then Paul's added a third wave. You'd expect the disciples to have done something as well.

    And if we do exclude first century growth, the next centuries have to work much harder.
  • It's a bit silly to claim ONLY 120 Christians total, given the number of people Jesus preached and served during his ministry. Did every one of them walk away untouched? 120 Christians-in-Jerusalem, maybe--though I'd be inclined to say only "120 Christians who were gathered together in a single place." I expect there were plenty of the half-convinced and even the secretly-full-convinced who were going about their ordinary lives embedded in families and neighborhoods and work situations where their beliefs were not shared.

    If I'm right, the 3000 gathered on Pentecost Day might have included any number of these--particularly since there were so many out-of-towners present in the city. Which means you don't have to assume all the 3000 went from zero to sixty in terms of their faith all in half-a-day.

    Really, I'd be surprised if Jesus' own ministry had borne no other fruit than those 120. I expect there were dormant seeds lying across the countryside...
  • I'm not convinced that the 120 is right for the number of Christians immediately post Ascension. Paul in 1 Cor 15 talks about Jesus appearing in front of 500 witnesses at one time.
    When and where isn't stated. My assumption is that this was in Galilee. Acts is programmatic in its move from Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria, and the ends of the Earth, so that the writer wouldn't necessarily want to mention a large Christian presence in Galilee.
    I expect there were plenty of the half-convinced and even the secretly-full-convinced who were going about their ordinary lives embedded in families and neighborhoods and work situations where their beliefs were not shared.

    If I'm right, the 3000 gathered on Pentecost Day might have included any number of these--particularly since there were so many out-of-towners present in the city. Which means you don't have to assume all the 3000 went from zero to sixty in terms of their faith all in half-a-day.

    Really, I'd be surprised if Jesus' own ministry had borne no other fruit than those 120. I expect there were dormant seeds lying across the countryside...

    And then here Lamb Chopped is spot on here. Take the demoniac in Luke 8: 38-39, The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him. . Sleeper cells left all over the country - there was a reason for Jesus spending time touring the villages preaching the gospel.

    And Jerusalem at the first Pentecost has to be the most prepared mission field in history. These Jews were waiting for the consolation of Israel. Lots of them had heard Jesus preach. Some would have been like Cleopas - they had hoped that Jesus was the one, distressed that their expectations were unfulfilled, fields ripe for the harvest. Heck, I think Luke rounded down.

  • Thing is, we have no idea whether those who heard about Christ indirectly through the testimony of others or directly through his itinerant preaching formed themselves into 'gathered' congregations as such.

    Some may have done. Others may not have had the opportunity to do so.

    The case of Prescilla and Aquila suggests that there were certainly people around with some grasp of early Christian teachings who were 'instructed in the word of God more accurately' when they encountered one or other of those connected with the disciples.

    I suppose if we assume 10,000 believers rather than 7500 by 100 AD that would make a marked difference to the subsequent trajectory.

    But then, it's all highly speculative.

    I wouldn't be surprised though if we were talking of a 'core' of around 120 people with an outer ring of around 500 and an extended sphere of influence of several thousand.

    A not entirely analogous parallel may be the UK restorationist scene of the 1980s where sociologists and other analysts initially over-estimated the numbers involved because they assumed that all those who attended the Bible Weeks and so on were fully paid up adherents when many of her were in fact members of other churches who used to visit these events.



  • EutychusEutychus Shipmate
    edited March 21
    A not entirely analogous parallel may be the UK restorationist scene of the 1980s where sociologists and other analysts initially over-estimated the numbers involved because they assumed that all those who attended the Bible Weeks and so on were fully paid up adherents when many of her were in fact members of other churches who used to visit these events.

    I'm irresistibly reminded of an evangelistic outreach I was once involved in in a port city that was also a naval base. We screened an evangelistic film for which we laid on lots of free minibus transport from the city centre. Since a lot of the audience were rather inebriated (this being a naval base) we had another stream of minibuses removing raucous spectators back whence they came. I could see the glowing reports of 3000 people having attended the screening in a 100-seater auditorium practically writing themselves...
  • I suppose if we assume 10,000 believers rather than 7500 by 100 AD that would make a marked difference to the subsequent trajectory.

    Depends on where they were and how much they travelled.

    But as I said, it's an incidental part of his book, mainly illustrating that the historical figures are within reasonable bounds, and the people most likely to object are those who doubt the historical figures or who think there was some kind of directly supernatural reason for the spread of Christianity.
  • jay_emmjay_emm Shipmate
    I suppose if we assume 10,000 believers rather than 7500 by 100 AD that would make a marked difference to the subsequent trajectory.

    Depends on where they were and how much they travelled.

    But as I said, it's an incidental part of his book, mainly illustrating that the historical figures are within reasonable bounds, and the people most likely to object are those who doubt the historical figures or who think there was some kind of directly supernatural reason for the spread of Christianity.

    It won't be too bad as it's anchored by the AD300 figure (and the AD40 is to some extent a fudge and the trajectory* is something we were bringing to the problem).

    It's 3 and a bit rather than 3 less a bit doublings in the first 60 years and slightly less than 12 instead of slightly more in the next 200.

    I think we need to look, taking it literally, over-piously, and over-cynically (i.e. at least 3 looks).

    * Mid run it's got to look nearer exponential than linear (but that first bit is going to be very messy)
  • Nick TamenNick Tamen Shipmate
    It's a bit silly to claim ONLY 120 Christians total, given the number of people Jesus preached and served during his ministry. Did every one of them walk away untouched? 120 Christians-in-Jerusalem, maybe--though I'd be inclined to say only "120 Christians who were gathered together in a single place."
    Yes, as I read that text, and as I’ve generally seen it discussed, there were 120 believers gathered when Matthias was chosen. I don’t think it’s saying anything about the total number of believers.

    I find myself suspecting that we’re supposed to see the number 120 as symbolic. It’s a multiple of 12, the number of tribes and the number of apostles. It’s also 3x40, 3 indicating the divine and 40—as in Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness and Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness—indicating a time of waiting. That seems to fit with the apostles and other believers in the time of waiting between the Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit.

  • One of the things that has always intrigued me is that the gospels (especially the Synoptics) focus on the work of Jesus in Galilee and lead us to suppose that there was a growing group of followers in that region. But after Easter, the Twelve seem to remain in Jerusalem (if we are to believe Luke in Acts) and that is where the new Church starts. We hear nothing about what happened to the followers of Jesus in Galilee. Do we factor them into our calculations or not? If so, how?
  • CrœsosCrœsos Shipmate
    Nick Tamen wrote: »
    I find myself suspecting that we’re supposed to see the number 120 as symbolic. It’s a multiple of 12, the number of tribes and the number of apostles. It’s also 3x40, 3 indicating the divine and 40 — as in Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness and Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness — indicating a time of waiting. That seems to fit with the apostles and other believers in the time of waiting between the Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit.

    In Middle Eastern numerology 40 is used to indicate "a lot", not necessarily an exact count. This seems to be the case even in non-Biblical examples (e.g. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves).
  • Nick TamenNick Tamen Shipmate
    Crœsos wrote: »
    Nick Tamen wrote: »
    I find myself suspecting that we’re supposed to see the number 120 as symbolic. It’s a multiple of 12, the number of tribes and the number of apostles. It’s also 3x40, 3 indicating the divine and 40 — as in Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness and Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness — indicating a time of waiting. That seems to fit with the apostles and other believers in the time of waiting between the Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit.

    In Middle Eastern numerology 40 is used to indicate "a lot", not necessarily an exact count. This seems to be the case even in non-Biblical examples (e.g. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves).
    Yes, I’m aware of that. I’ve also seen and heard sources that say that in a Hebrew/Jewish context it indicates waiting or transition. (Perhaps a lot of waiting and transition time?)

    For example, Ask the Rabbi says:
    The number 40 has great significance throughout the Torah and the Talmud. The number 40 represents transition or change; the concept of renewal; a new beginning.

    My Jewish Learning says:
    Forty appears many times in the Bible, usually designating a time of radical transition or transformation.

    I have seen or heard reference from sources I tend to trust to 40, at least when applied to periods of time, signifying waiting as well, but I’m not finding anything I’d trust online at the moment that specifically makes that connection—though I think waiting can reasonably be linked to times of transition and transformation.

  • Lamb ChoppedLamb Chopped Shipmate
    edited March 22
    I wouldn’t think 120–if you wanted to intensify the 12, it’d usually be 144, 12 x 12, and not 12 x 10.
  • Nick TamenNick Tamen Shipmate
    edited March 22
    I wouldn’t think 120–if you wanted to intensify the 12, it’d usually be 144, 12 x 12, and not 12 x 10.
    Yes, I thought that too. But 3 x 40 potentially makes some sense. After all, my understanding at least is that 12 is significant because it’s 3 (the divine) times 4 (the human).

  • PendragonPendragon Shipmate
    A quick check online tells me that 50 days after Passover is Shavuot. This was also a "Pilgrimage Festival", when the Jewish law required a trip to Jerusalem, this time to give thanks for the harvest. So Pentecost happened at the time of another seasonal population spike.

    These people would have included those who had encountered Jesus' ministry. I would imagine that the news about his fate, and possibly the events of Easter would have been passed on to them with some degree of accuracy in the intervening period. So if they then heard the Disciples saying that yes, he had come back to life and subsequently gone up to heaven, I agree that they would have been a sizable and easily converted crowd.

    As far as the foreign Jews go, if you have made the (possibly once in a lifetime) trip to Jerusalem for the Passover, why not stay another couple of months between the festivals to sightsee/trade/earn some money to pay for the boat home? Especially as shipping was a summer oriented industry, and still starting up again to some extent at Passover. (The movement of grain from the eastern Mediterranean to Rome post harvest would have probably been popular for creating at least part of the route home.)
  • 3 is also a factor of 144, so ...

    Seriously, I can't think of anything bar the 10 Commandments that there are 10 of, biblically speaking. Well, the 10 tribes that broke away from David's line, but that's not a particularly happy precedent.
  • Gee DGee D Shipmate
    3 is also a factor of 144, so ...

    Seriously, I can't think of anything bar the 10 Commandments that there are 10 of, biblically speaking. Well, the 10 tribes that broke away from David's line, but that's not a particularly happy precedent.
    Nick Tamen wrote: »
    Yes, I thought that too. But 3 x 40 potentially makes some sense. After all, my understanding at least is that 12 is significant because it’s 3 (the divine) times 4 (the human).

    I suppose you can say that 144 breaks down to 1 + 4 + 4 = 9 = 3 x 3.
  • Numerology is a bottomless rabbit hole.
  • Gee DGee D Shipmate
    edited March 23
    That's the point I was seeking to make. BTW, I notice that your post contained 33 letters........
  • Nick TamenNick Tamen Shipmate
    3 is also a factor of 144, so ...
    Yes, but 28 has no meaning in Hebrew/Jewish usage that I’m aware of. And again, while I did mention 12x10 because that’s what first caught my eye, it’s really 3x40 that I think might be at play here.

    Numerology is a bottomless rabbit hole.
    Numerology is not the same thing as the symbolic use of numbers. The two are related, but not the same thing.

  • Gee D wrote: »
    I suppose you can say that 144 breaks down to 1 + 4 + 4 = 9 = 3 x 3.

    ... But not in Hebrew or Greek alphanumerals, where the letter that stands for 100 is not the same as the letter that stands for 1, and the letter that stands for 40 is not the same as the letter that stands for 4.

  • FlubbFlubb Shipmate Posts: 1
    There are noted problems with Stark's thesis (and others), as Thomas Robinson laid out in 'Who were the First Christians? Dismantling the Urban Thesis'. First, is Stark's suggestion that students should ignore their historian professors who don't like Stark (!):
    Many historians, especially those devoted to ancient history, will receive this book with the deepest of suspicions; and others of them, with enthusiastic contempt. Of course, I didn’t write it for them. I wrote it for the general reader, for numerate scholars, and especially for graduate students in history, to tempt the latter to pursue more disciplined and sophisticated undertakings. Cities of God, p.213

    There are other issues with Stark not checking his sources properly or getting facts wrong -he picks and chooses his numbers as it suits him, cites other people's works incorrectly (and in 1 case, deliberately), doesn't have a model for the growth of Christianity in the countryside by 200 AD that fits his urban model, is generally sloppy with his statistics ('totally built on quicksand' cf Bremmer, 'lacks discipline' cf Robinson) and can't back up his own, attempts to parallel Christianity with Mormonism while ignoring the fundamental differences in family make-up and life-expectancy. Stark's (and everyone else's) numbers simply don't work unless you ignore what he says happens (Christianity is urban) and accept that Christianity grew at a phenomenal rate outside the cities or accept that the models of Christian growth are fundamentally flawed and need re-examining. You can't end up with the numbers Stark suggests without the countryside being much more saturated with Christians than they allow for or that there were fewer Christians than is thought. It's not to say it's worthless but neither can it be taken for granted as it is quite flawed within its own conclusions talking about numbers. To Robinson, Stark has been provocative, but hasn't hasn't done anything more than add a veneer of (false) mathematical respectability to the 10% thesis of Harnack. Robinson suggests stopping estimating raw numbers at all - there's too little data to build anything coherent on it.

    Harnack is really the ur-guesstimator, as almost everyone else guesstimates the same as he did - MacMullen, Lane Fox, Stark, Drake, and Harnack all hover around an estimation of between 4-12% by the 3rd century. The problems are that the population estimates of the Roman Empire are the numbers are guesstimates based on a problematic demographic model.
  • TelfordTelford Shipmate
    From 303AD the emperor Diocletian made it a very bad time for anyone to admit to being a Christian.

    I reckon that the majority of Christians were always in Greece and Turkey
  • Gee DGee D Shipmate
    Gee D wrote: »
    I suppose you can say that 144 breaks down to 1 + 4 + 4 = 9 = 3 x 3.

    ... But not in Hebrew or Greek alphanumerals, where the letter that stands for 100 is not the same as the letter that stands for 1, and the letter that stands for 40 is not the same as the letter that stands for 4.

    Detail, detail. It does in the modern Arabic numerals we use, and the Biblical writers were foreseeing that.

    BTW, did you notice that your post contains 159 letters - 1+5+9 =15, and then 1+5 =6, which in turn is twice 3. The magic 3 keeps reappearing!
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