Sunday, September 21, 2008

Early Church Growth

The period from the death of Christ until the end of the first century was the most fruitful in the history of the church. During these few decades, Christianity spread clear across the Roman Empire and beyond in to the Parthian empire, India, and North Africa. The best estimates put the number of Christians at the end of the first century at around 1 million. That’s an increase of 2000 times the number of Christians before Pentecost (perhaps 500). At this rate of growth, the entire world would have been converted within the next hundred years!

What is the significance of this phenomenal growth? Just this: Those who believe the early church is the best pattern for church life (like me) point to these results as an important part of their backing.

That's why I'm not happy with Rodney Stark's book, The Rise of Christianity, (Princeton: The Princeton University Press, 1996). Stark admits right at the beginning, "I am not a New Testament scholar and shall never be. Nor am I a historian..." (p. xii). His lack of expertise in these fields really shows in this book. (He's a sociologist). He lays out an entirely implausible estimate of only 7530 Christians by the end of the first century (p.7). This estimate is at variance with most scholarship. For instance, The World Christian Encyclopedia, estimates that by A.D. 100 there were 1 million Christians in the Roman Empire out of a population of 181 million. David B. Barrett, ed., World Christian Encyclopedia. A Comparative Study of Churches and Religions in the Modern World A.D. 1900-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 3. Also see Kenneth Latourette: A History of the Expansion of Christianity, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan Publishing House, 1970) 85.

Latourette observes, “Never in the history of the race has this record ever quite been equaled. Never in so short a time has any other religious faith, or, for that matter, any other set of ideas, religious political, or economic, without the aid of physical force or of social or cultural prestige, achieved so commanding a position in such an important culture.” 112. Of course Islam and Communism spread fast, but both used military force.

I agree with the earlier scholars. Stark is wrong.

In the first place, we can account for 8000 Christians within the first few chapters of Acts, unless these narratives are completely discounted. Stark frankly dismisses Acts on page 5, speaking of the "many thousands" claimed by James in Acts 21 and the 5000 males mentioned in Acts 4. He says, "These are not statistics...figures in antiquity...were part of rhetorical exercises." (citing Robert Grant). His basis for rejecting Luke's numbers is the out-dated estimate by J. C. Russell that Jerusalem only had 10,000 inhabitants. Historians at the time had much higher numbers. Josephus says that at the siege of Jerusalem the population was 3,000,000, a figure nobody believes. Tacitus’ statement that it was 600,000 is nearer the truth, but still too high. Most historians today believe it was 35,000 to 50,000 people, mostly based on the extensive water supply systems excavated in recent decades. This figure could easily include thousands of Christians.

Stark absolutely rejects the historicity of Acts. He says, "I shall assume there were 1000 Christians in the year 40." (p. 5) He bases his estimate on a straight mathematical formula assuming 40% growth per decade for 300 years, ending in six million Christians by the time of Constantine. But this is not how Christianity grew. The growth was far better during the early years and slowed thereafter.

Stark supporter, Richard Carrier distorts his sources. He says of Pliny’s famous letter to Emperor Trajan, “…he [Pliny] says he knows nothing about how they [Christians] are to be punished or even charged (10.96.1-2). This is proof positive that Christians must have been extremely scarce--to the point of social invisibility.” This is amazingly distorted!

Here is what Pliny actually says:
“The case seemed to me to be a proper one for consultation, particularly because of the number of those who were accused [of being Christians]. For many of every age, every class, and of both sexes are being accused and will continue to be accused. Nor has this contagious superstition spread through the cities only, but also through the villages and the countryside. But I think it can be checked and put right. At any rate the temples, which had been well-nigh abandoned, are beginning to be frequented again; and the customary services, which had been neglected for a long time, are beginning to be resumed; fodder for the sacrificial animals, too, is beginning to find a sale again, for hitherto it was difficult to find anyone to buy it. From all this it is easy to judge what a multitude of people can be reclaimed, if an opportunity is granted them to renounce Christianity.”
So we see that, contrary to Carrier, the Christians were actually so numerous in his province that temples were empty, and they couldn’t sell sacrificial animals or fodder. The temples were being abandoned! This letter is referring to Bithynia, which got a late start with Christianity. Christians in Rome were way more numerous. Notice how Tacitus refers to the “huge multitude” of Christians captured during Nero’s persecution (Tacitus, Anal. XV. 44). And yet we're supposed to believe that only 8000 were won to Christianity in the first century? See Adolf Harnack's list of early references to numbers of Christians, which, although mostly second century, show they were very numerous well before that.

The lesson here is twofold. First, I've been surprised to hear evangelical leaders quoting Stark's conclusions without apparently realizing that he dismisses the historicity of Acts. Christian leaders should check out their sources more carefully and critically.

Second, the first century really was the best century, no matter how you want to measure it. That suggests we should take another look at simplicity in church life, at personal discipleship as the best way to develop leadership, at mobilization of the whole body for ministry, and other New Testament practices. We should also reject modern entertainment theories and market-driven theories for attracting growth. Trusting to the power of the Word of God and the Holy Spirit might still cause us to see the kind of power they did.