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Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? (2006)

[See Introduction]

 

Richard Carrier

 

18. How Successful Was Christianity?

18.1 Assumptions
18.2 Numbers: What the Christians Say
18.3 Numbers: What the Experts Say
18.4 With Whom Did Christianity Begin?
18.5 The Rise of World Christianity
18.6 Conclusion

 

18.1. Assumptions

In previous chapters, we have sufficiently demonstrated that there was nothing improbable about Christianity's success--entirely natural factors that are attested in the evidence supply all the explanatory power needed to account for the actual course of history. I have not examined the issue beyond the first hundred years of the Christian mission, because after that period very little of Holding's argument remains relevant--the ability to check the facts would be, by then, all but impossible, and greatly thwarted by an overabundance of bogus history, while the nature of Christianity had substantially changed as well, as did the social circumstances surrounding it. As Holding himself admits, after the first century the "evidence would have been almost completely inaccessible and decisions had to be made on other grounds." Nevertheless, below I will address very briefly the next few centuries of Christian development, which secured its future as a major world religion (a fate that was never definite until Constantine).

The central point of this chapter is to address two underlying assumptions running throughout Holding's entire case. For one thing, he wrongly dismisses the role of luck in deciding the fate of nations and social movements. Holding is correct that we should not simply assume luck was a factor, nor declare luck as solely responsible. That has to be demonstrated, usually through appropriate counterfactual reasoning. And I shall demonstrate below that luck played a significant role in the eventual success of Christianity (i.e. its growth after the mid-2nd century A.D.).

But a far more important assumption in Holding's argument is that Christianity, right out of the gate, was as successful as sex in the sixties, winning over millions of people in just two or three generations. Holding never actually commits to any numbers, but many of his statements strongly imply that Christianity was literally running away with Greco-Roman culture. For it makes no sense to argue that Christianity must have had supernatural backing "because most people wouldn't have bought it," when in fact most people didn't. Surely Holding must be assuming that most people did buy it, or at least so many as to defy all expectation. I would have to say he must imagine Christianity won at least 10% of the population within a hundred years, although I get the impression he actually imagines as much as 20% or more did. That's patently absurd. But nothing else makes sense of many of his arguments.

I am told Holding admitted in an online debate that maybe only 1 in 5000 "bought" Christianity in the first century, but if so that pretty much kills his case. Yet if so many fewer than 1 in 10 people bought it, even after a hundred years of sales, it can easily be said that Christianity was only appealing to the fringe radicals of the going culture. After all, pick any culture throughout history, and you'll easily find less than 1 in 10 members of that society following the beat of a different drummer. No conclusions about what the other 9 out of 10 would do will have any bearing on the response of the rest. And most of Holding's arguments amount to drawing conclusions about the other 9 out of 10, not the 1 in 10 who may have converted, much less 1 in 5000. Thus, there is something fundamentally illogical about his entire case--unless he really does mean to imply that Christianity won over far more than even 10% of the population by mid-2nd century.

But in reality, even 10% is an absurd estimate. In fact, the evidence is pretty clear (as we shall see below) that Christianity won over less than 1% of the population before the middle of the 2nd century. That means more than 99 out of 100 people weren't convinced, and less than one in a hundred believed. It escapes me how anyone can claim this as a "supernatural" success. Even by their own account, for centuries Christians remained a small minority cult almost universally rejected or opposed, especially by the educated elite. Its very country of origin rejected it almost universally, as Paul himself lets on in Romans 11:25-31. Judaea, much less Jerusalem or Galilee, never became "Christian" to any notable degree until the 4th century--at the earliest.

For example, Josephus records the history of these regions in considerable detail right up to the Jewish War (66-70 A.D.), yet Christians never once feature in the narrative of the war--everyone encountered anywhere during the conflict was either Jewish or pagan. More importantly, his numerous digressions on the geography and demography of Palestine never mention them. Even the dubious passages that do mention them say nothing of their numbers or location. Archaeological evidence secures the case: though a vast amount of material evidence has been uncovered of unmistakably Jewish occupation throughout Palestine, as well as considerable evidence of pagan inhabitants, absolutely no material evidence of any Christian population can be found there until later centuries. In fact, only in the 3rd century does material evidence of a Christian presence anywhere in the Empire begin to match that of even minor pagan cults. Therefore, from both observations it follows that if Christians inhabited Palestine in the first century, their numbers must have been truly negligible. And to carry the point home, even the most biased of Christian sources make no claims to the contrary. Acts suggests the mission was taken to the Gentiles because Jews simply weren't buying it anymore.[1] This looks pretty bad for Holding. Where Christianity was most open to being checked against the facts is where it was least successful. Hmmm.

Even taking in the compass of the whole Roman Empire, Holding himself quotes N. T. Wright that belief in Christ's resurrection "was held by a tiny group who, for the first two or three generations at least, could hardly have mounted a riot in a village, let alone a revolution in an empire." That's not an impressive rate of success. In fact, it's downright dismal. One might contrast this with the success of the Scientific Revolution, when modern scientific principles launched from a controversial fringe movement in 1600 to near-universal praise and acceptance from every echelon of society by 1750. Christianity only wishes it had seen that kind of triumph. In the end, it could only gain that scale of success after numerous centuries, and even then only by force and intimidation.

 

18.2. Numbers: What the Christians Say

There is no good evidence on the number of Christians in the first century. Acts neglects to mention or even estimate the rate of losses and has every reason to exaggerate the scale of Christianity's success, yet still only claims the Church began with about 120 members after the death of Jesus (Acts 1:15), while the largest actual number on record for the size of the Church in Palestine is 5,000 total members (Acts 4:4). All subsequent growth is described only in vague terms, and Acts loses complete track of the matter once even those few Palestinian Christians "scattered" and eventually fled (Acts 8:1, 11:19).

At one point (Acts 21:20) we are told a Christian elder boasted that "myriads" of (presumably local) Jews have converted, but unfortunately "myriad" can mean 10,000 or just "thousands" or even "more than I can count!" and so this cannot be treated as a useful or precise estimate. There is no evidence of an actual internal census (otherwise Luke would have more precise numbers to quote), and it would be a Herculean feat even to count thousands, much less tens of thousands, by hand. Consequently, any such announcement had to have been a guess--and a Christian would always guess optimistically. Moreover, outright hyperbole would be typical in such a context--and notably, Luke only puts this claim in someone else's mouth, and thus does not commit to it himself. Similarly (outside the context of Palestine), when Tacitus reports a "huge number" (multitudo ingens) of Christians were found in Rome for the Neronian persecution of 64 A.D. (Annals 15.44), this only means the number was uncountable--possibly one or two hundred, as would befit the fact that the population of Rome was one of the largest cities in the world, and one of the primary locations Christians targeted for evangelism.[2] But "hundreds" out of nearly a million people is still socially microscopic.

Other evidence that is sometimes cited is pretty much useless for arriving at any actual number. The riots under Claudius, driving him to expel the Jews from Rome, cannot be linked to Christianity except by implausible speculation.[3] And even if it were linked, Acts reveals that only a handful of Christians, even a single man, was enough to launch riots in Ephesus and Jerusalem (Acts 19 and 21). So riots in Rome would not prove any greater numbers. Another useless piece of evidence is the book of Revelations, which says there will be a total of 144,000 Jews saved (Revelations 7:4 & 14:1-3). But there is no reason to believe the unknown author of this text was using any kind of actual count or data--for the book is a record of a mystical vision, and about the future (Revelations 1:1-3), and not a historical fact drawn from any kind of real "source." We also don't know when the book was written, or when the author imagined this count would be reached. Moreover, the number is calculated mystically: exactly twelve thousand Jews will come from each of the twelve tribes (Revelations 7:5-8), every single one of them a virgin (14:4). Clearly we are not looking at any kind of historical report here. Likewise, when Aristides wrote an address to emperor Hadrian (between 117-138 A.D.) in which he called the Christians a new "class" of people, this offers no hint of what kind of numbers Aristides had in mind, since the appellation has nothing to do with number or size, but with categorical distinction: the Christians constituted a new category because their customs and beliefs differed from the traditional categories of the ancient world (such as Barbarian, Greek, or Jew). Aristides makes no clear statement about the number of his brethren--and at any rate, this document falls well outside the first century, and is explicitly apologetic and thus subject to hyperbole. So, again, there is no useful data here.

Some have argued that an anonymous quotation in the 5th-century text of Sulpicius Severus really comes from the lost books of the Histories of Tacitus, and since the passage says the Romans specifically destroyed the Jewish Temple to eradicate the Christians, this implies a substantial Christian presence in Judaea as of 70 A.D.[4] But Severus does not say he is quoting Tacitus. It is only by dubious stylistic speculation that the passage is attributed to Tacitus at all, and most scholars believe the passage was redacted by Christians anyway. So this evidence is tainted and unreliable. Even the action proposed--destroying the Temple--could not plausibly have crushed the Christian movement, so the story is inherently unbelievable. But even if it were genuine, it doesn't help us--for we would still not know what drew the ire of the Romans on that occasion.

Since Acts suggests the Christians could make a substantial nuisance of themselves even when very few, the fact that Romans like Nero (only six years earlier) found a reason to get rid of them did not entail it was their vast numbers that annoyed him. Nero may well have found Christians to be the handiest scapegoats for the burning of Rome because they preached that the world would soon be set on fire (e.g. 2 Peter 3:5-13), and because Paul, all by himself, had personally secured Nero's attention by causing a riot in Jerusalem (Acts 21 & 28), which would make Paul (and therefore his "movement") a visible cause of unrest in a troubled province on the brink of a rebellion only two years away. Moreover, if Titus believed the Christians were responsible for burning Rome (a crime they had been convicted of only a few years earlier), that would be reason enough to want to get rid of them, no matter how few of them there were--and given all the fires, riots, and complaints from the Jewish leadership, Titus could easily have thought the movement was larger than it really was. But even if numbers were the issue, the five thousand Christians alleged to exist in Acts would constitute almost an entire legion--certainly enough for a Roman general to worry about--but not enough by 70 A.D. to constitute an impressive popularity for Holding's purpose, even if we were to make all the groundless leaps of speculation needed to get that far.

It has also been claimed that laws would not have been passed against Christians unless there were a lot of them. But even if that were so, how many would there have to be? Any answer would be a purely subjective judgment. Given the fact that Christians routinely engaged in bold and public behavior in several major cities, it would not require many to gain legal attention. Again, Acts shows a mere handful could and did cause several riots, illegal plots, and official charges under Roman law (16:16-40, 17:5-9, 18:12-19, 19:23-41, 21:27-23:25). And, again, a hundred per city in seventy cities would be more than visible enough to warrant a government response--yet is still only a total of 7,000 out of 60 million. So, yet again, even with very small numbers they could make a public nuisance of themselves. Indeed, a single man--Paul--sends the entire city of Jerusalem into chaos and gets nearly every Roman official involved all the way up to (presumably) the Emperor. And Christians were certainly a known presence in Rome by the time of Nero. So even if there were laws specifically against being Christian, that tells us nothing useful about how many Christians there were.

There is also a catch-22 here: Holding's argument requires premise P1: "unless evidence of divine support was overwhelming, large numbers of people would not become Christians if it was a capital crime." The argument then follows P2: "if being a Christian (in and of itself) was a capital crime, then Christians must have existed in large numbers." And since P2 contradicts P1 unless "evidence of divine support was overwhelming," Holding's conclusion is thus upheld, if P1 and P2 are true. The problem is that any advocate of P2 must then contend with the fact that it was also a capital crime to rob graves. In fact, from the first two centuries we have far more evidence of those laws than for any laws mentioning Christians.[5] Hence P2 analogously entails that if there were laws against robbing graves, then hundreds of thousands of people must have been grave robbers, which proves P3: "hundreds of thousands of people would engage in lethally dangerous and socially despised behavior without overwhelming evidence of divine support." P3 refutes P1. Therefore, one must retreat from this fatal assumption and admit to P4: "only a tiny fringe minority engaged in grave robbing." And that is probably true--certainly fewer than 1/10th of 1% of the population could ever have been grave robbers. But if P4 is true, then mutatis mutandis P2 is false, and laws could be passed against tiny fringe minorities. Therefore, even if there were laws specifically against Christians, this would not entail that they were more than a tiny fringe minority. You can only escape this conclusion by denying P4, but denying P4 entails denying P1, which refutes Holding's entire thesis. Something has to give, and for Holding, that must be P2. Therefore, Holding cannot argue from the existence of laws to the conclusion that Christians existed in vast numbers.

But the fact is, there is no evidence of any actual law against Christianity anyway until the mid-2nd or early 3rd century. Prior to that, Christians were rarely prosecuted at all, and even when they were, it was for other generic crimes against Rome, not simply for "being Christian." Paul, we are told, ended up before Gallio on a vague charge of soliciting criminal behavior, and is charged as a Jew (Acts 16:20-21). Even Nero had to formally charge Christians with arson to get away with killing them.[6] Even by the early 2nd century, when Pliny the Younger asks the emperor Trajan what the law was against Christians, Trajan replies, "it is not possible to establish anything in general that has a specific form, so to speak." In legal jargon that meant there was no actual law, and so Pliny had to use his own judgment. Hence the only general test Trajan suggests is the same one Pliny came up with on his own even before he knew why Christians were criminals, which is to test whether the accused is a member of an illegal society: first by asking them to renounce this, then--to make sure they are telling the truth--asking them to do something otherwise trivial that he was told members of their association would never do. This means Pliny understood Christianity as already violating existing laws against illegal associations, and therefore no specific law against Christianity was required. Membership in illegal associations was already a capital crime since any formal association required an approval or a special license issued by the government, which sought assurances that the association was not a covertly treasonous movement against the Roman order.[7]

This explains why Pliny the Younger regarded "obstinacy" (a refusal to renounce a social affiliation) as sufficient evidence of guilt. This also explains why it appears they were tried for the name "Christian," since Christiani can mean "members of the party of Christ," in the same way the Pompeiani were the supporters of Pompey against Caesar, and Pliny's "test" of their loyalty (renouncing their affiliation and proving their sincerity) is considered sufficient proof of innocence or guilt. This corresponds perfectly to the charge against them specifically identified in Acts: "acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar by saying there is another king, Jesus" (17:7). In fact, if even a single man went around all by himself proclaiming he was a Brutian--a supporter of the party of Brutus--Pliny could have executed him on the charge of being a Brutiani, not because there was any law specifically against being one, but simply because it was illegal for anyone to support a political party other than Caesar's. Therefore, the Pliny-Trajan correspondence entails there was no specific law against Christians. Indeed, Trajan outright says there is no such law, and then he specifically tells Pliny not to hunt Christians down--so this was not a government that wanted them exterminated (for more on Pliny's letter, see the next section).

So we are left with no useful evidence of the size of the Christian movement in the first century. Even the only definite number we have--the 5,000 in Acts--comes from an unknown source, and is reported by an author with an obvious bias toward exaggerating the popularity of his movement. We also have no idea how such a number could have been known to Luke. Who counted? Even if we set all that aside, we still don't get as far as we need to in order to prop up Holding's case. Reasonable estimates for the total population of (the whole of) Palestine in the first century approach 2.5 million. So a Church of even 25,000 members (five times the largest size Luke himself dares to claim) would make up only 1% of the population there. In reality, it is doubtful the Christian Church ever maintained even that size throughout Palestine in the first century, and there is no good evidence it did. Meanwhile, outside Palestine we have no numbers at all, not even from Luke. All we get is a general impression of winning converts here and there--but whenever anything more precise is said, we rarely hear of more than several households per town. Even at our most optimistic, that doesn't look good. We could perhaps imagine a hundred Christians per city by the year 100, which would be a shockingly visible presence, given the small size of ancient towns and the "nosiness" of ancient cultures (as Holding himself makes a point of, cf. Chapter 13). But even by the most optimistic estimates, Christians had then penetrated fewer than 70 towns or cities across the whole Empire--and that only makes for a total of 7,000 people. Again, that's socially microscopic.

We also have to consider that there could have been a lot of apostates--enthusiasts might profess nominal allegiance, receive a free baptism as yet another egg in their basket of supernatural security, and then find out the truth or think things through. Christian sources obviously avoid admitting that anyone abandoned the faith, and in fact the only useful observation we have on this phenomenon comes from Pliny the Younger, in his highly rhetorical epistle to Emperor Trajan (Letters 10.96). Pliny's account of his investigation into local Christianity reveals that there were a significant number of Christians who did not remain converts--they left of their own accord, even without persecution. Pliny found locals (around 112 A.D.) who had ceased being Christians "two or more years ago, and some of them even twenty years ago" (10.96.6), and still more were quick to abandon their beliefs once Pliny threatened them with execution. So we know Christianity had to contend with making up losses. It didn't create some miraculous landslide of unshakable belief.

But even more telling is the fact that Pliny the Younger starts right off by admitting, "I have never been present at an examination of Christians." In fact, he says he knows nothing about how they 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. Pliny had been governor in Asia Minor for over a year already, and before that he held the post of Consul (the highest possible office in the entire Roman Empire, short of actually being the Emperor). He had also been a lawyer in Roman courts for several decades, then served in Rome as Praetor (the ancient equivalent of both Chief of Police and Attorney General), and then served as one of Trajan's top legal advisors for several years before he was appointed to govern Bithynia.[8] It is therefore absolutely incredible that Pliny had never attended a prosecution of Christians and knew absolutely nothing about how to prosecute them--he didn't even know why adopting Christianity was illegal! Therefore, Christians must have been extremely rare indeed. For this means he never once saw a trial or a riot, nor had a Christian brought before him, nor ever heard the issue discussed in the Senate, courts, or porticoes, or by any of his peers--not in Asia (until this occasion), nor as top legal advisor to Trajan, nor as the leading law officer in Rome, nor as a lawyer, not even when he held the highest office in the land. That is simply impossible--unless Christians were barely there. That does a lot to corroborate Rodney Stark's conclusion (discussed below).

Some apologists do try to use Pliny the Younger's exaggerated panic as evidence that Christianity was a huge hit. For Pliny claims "temples had for a long time been almost entirely deserted" and "sacred rites had been allowed to lapse" and "scarcely anyone could be found" to buy sacrificial animals (obvious rhetorical exaggerations), "but," Pliny declares with relief, these have all become popular again. Is Pliny saying Christianity had practically eclipsed paganism all around him? That's impossible. For had that been so, how could he know nothing about it? And why would he need informers and anonymous lists to find the Christians? Throughout his letter Pliny appears shocked and surprised to suddenly be finding Christians all over the place--though he doesn't say how many, his astonishment makes no sense if it had become a major local practice. The fact is, Pliny does not say this decline in pagan worship was the consequence of people flocking to Christianity--apologists simply read that inference into the text. Rather, with classic rhetorical flourish, Pliny is claiming that piety in general had declined into apathy, but people were finding religion again, and that was a good sign because it meant they would stop straying into barbaric superstitions like Christianity and return instead to zealous patriotism. Otherwise, as Pliny's story plainly reveals, you had to look pretty darned hard even to find a local Christian.

 

18.3. Numbers: What the Experts Say

A quick survey of important considerations and scholarship regarding the actual rate of growth of Christianity in its first century is presented by Rodney Stark. He notes that the highest estimate of Christian numbers ever in bona fide scholarship is 15 million believers... in the year 300 A.D. Scholarly consensus, however, trends quite strongly toward half that figure, or even less. Given the best estimate of the total population of the Roman Empire as 60 million, this means that even by the most favorable scholarly estimate on record, Christians comprised only 25% of the population even after nearly three centuries of evangelism. And most scholars agree the ratio was probably closer to 10%.[9] Even so, all scholars agree a ratio higher than 25% is completely unsupportable. As Stark rightly points out--and he is a sociologist by profession--a final number like this allows us to predict the average rate of growth over the previous centuries from known historical precedents and scientific models. Stark does the math, and demonstrates that only a rate of growth of around 40% per decade fits the actual data we have as well as known precedents (it roughly matches the rate of growth of the Mormon Church, for example).[10]

Stark surveys the evidence from antiquity that corroborates this estimate, and he is probably right--for there is no evidence to contradict him, and what little evidence we have supports him. Indeed, as Stark explains, the strongest evidence we have--Roger Bagnall's hard data from Egyptian papyrological documents--essentially agrees with Stark's growth curve. Moreover, most experts agree with Stark's conclusions--we shall mention Hopkins, Fox, and Finn below. So there is no plausible case to be made against Stark's estimate. No evidence counters it. All relevant evidence supports it. One could still "insist" the numbers were higher, and that somehow no real evidence of this survives, but any argument based on a blind conjecture is itself a blind conjecture, and that won't suit Holding's argument at all. The fact is, the evidence we have agrees only with Stark--so if we reject Stark, we still have no evidence the numbers were higher.

Yet Stark's conclusion entails there could not have been more than 8,000 Christians in the Church by the end of the first century, which fits the above picture of 100 Christians in each of 70 towns--more than enough to be a visible problem, but nowhere near enough to make Holding's case. However, we must not confuse this number with the number of converts in the first century--for almost all converts made in the 40s would be dead by the year 100, and there is also the inevitable question of apostasy. In both cases Stark is assuming their members are replaced. So if, for example, 75% of those converted throughout the first century were no longer alive by 100 (a reasonable assumption), then by Stark's own estimate the Christians actually won 32,000 converts over its first hundred years. If we add the hypothesis that 1 in 4 converts eventually left the faith voluntarily (out of disillusionment, disagreement, persuasion by outsiders, or simple fear), and that should be a fair assumption even if Christianity was 100% true (roughly 1 in 4 Americans is not a serious Christian today, and Holding would probably argue that they have access to sufficient facts to know they are mistaken), then according to Stark the Christians could claim to have appealed to as many as 40,000 members of the population, which over that same period of time would have included at least 120 million adults overall. That's it. Only 1 out of 3000 people--only 1/30th of 1 percent--were ever impressed enough to join. That's a trivial scale of success. Indeed, even if we exaggerate beyond all proportion and imagine Stark's math is off by a factor of ten, and Christianity appealed to 400,000 people in the first century, we still are at far less than 1% of the population, which we can never claim to be more than a tiny fringe minority.

A more thorough survey of the evidence and scholarship pertaining to Christian numbers was provided in a landmark paper by Keith Hopkins.[11] Hopkins rightly explains that no one can claim anything definite on this subject, at least for the first two centuries. Anyone who says anything about Christian numbers is speculating, and not asserting a fact. This is a fatal problem for Holding, whose argument requires factual premises, not speculative ones. The best we can hope for is to arrive at conclusions that do not contradict any relevant evidence, while conforming to that evidence better than any alternative in the light of known historical precedents and scientific models--exactly the standards employed by Stark. And, in fact, Hopkins demonstrates the accuracy and plausibility of Stark's conclusions. Thomas Finn also agrees with Hopkins and Stark, and adds further corroborating evidence, while Robin Lane Fox surveys every kind of evidence of Christian numbers one could expect to find (especially archaeological), and finds that Christians were practically invisible until the 3rd century.[12] We can apparently trust the eyewitness testimony of the Christian scholar Origen that by the dawn of the 3rd century "only a very few" had joined the Christian movement.[13]

In addition to all this, especially the direct numerical corroboration of Stark's model from Bagnall's papyrological survey, we have one other statistic that is probably exact and accurate: Bishop Cornelius of Rome tells us the exact size of the Church at Rome in a letter he wrote around 251 A.D., which Eusebius quotes at length.[14] In passing, Cornelius gives a list of the personnel which is so exact it surely derives from financial record books, and altogether the total comes to 60 priests of various grades, an additional staff of 94, "over" 1500 beggars and widows on the Church dole, and other members "too many to count." The fact that only dependents and staff were counted means, even at this advanced stage in the Church's development, no effort was being made to count the size of its membership--so all earlier counts surely can't be any more than optimistic boasts or guesses. But from this hard data different scholars have variously estimated the Roman Church at between 14,000 and 30,000, or even 50,000 members, in the year 251. No one argues for anything more than that, and even those numbers are probably too high. With only, at most, a hundred men qualified to lead or supervise services each week, and given that the largest meeting spaces available to Christians at the time could accommodate no more than 100 people, the Church at Rome probably could not have claimed more than 11,000 believers--which is pretty close to Stark's prediction of 14,000. There is absolutely no evidence it was larger than that. Of course, there may have been heretical churches in Rome at the time. Though Holding does not regard alternative sects as "true" Christians, we have no evidence how many "false" Christians were in Rome anyway.

Even so, I'll be freakishly optimistic and run with the largest estimate on the scholarly record (that of Edward Gibbon, over 200 years obsolete and pretty much universally rejected by modern experts). Let's just "assume" this same data suggests a Christian population in Rome of 50,000 in 251 A.D. All scholars agree the population of Rome at this time exceeded 700,000. Christians, therefore, could claim barely 7% of the population of Rome even by the mid-3rd century--even by the most flawed and exaggerated estimate on record--which mathematically entails the Church was far smaller in the 2nd century, and even smaller in the 1st. In order for there to be only a 7% penetration of the population of Rome after more than 200 years, this mathematically requires an average rate of growth no greater than 50% faster than Stark's--any faster would require implausible phases of zero or even negative growth over several decades in order to fit the facts. Yet increasing Stark's rate of growth by 50% still leaves us with no more than 17,000 Christians throughout the entire Roman Empire by 100 A.D., which entails a total tally of "converts" in the first century of roughly 63,000 (using the same assumptions stated earlier). In other words, barely 1 in 2000 people knew about and found Christianity attractive even assuming the most inflated interpretation possible of the best data we have.

Stark begins his progression from an initial base of 1,000. But what if there really were 5,000 in 40 A.D., as Luke claims? The number is dubious. But Stark's model would still predict no more than 38,000 members by 100 A.D., which means fewer than 200,000 conversions throughout the whole of the 1st century--little more than 1/10th of 1%. Fewer than 1 in 600 conversions after several generations of preaching is still fringe, not a popular success. And this isn't plausible anyway, since to match the hard data we have for the 3rd century (from Bagnall and Cornelius), the rate of growth of the Church would have to be lower than Stark's estimate. So even starting with 5,000 members in 40 A.D., the total number of conversions in the 1st century was probably somewhere near 100,000 rather than 200,000. Thus the most credible estimates we have, from what little evidence we have, still get us nowhere beyond a tiny fringe minority, and nowhere near a miraculous success.

Of course, one could dink the rate of growth around in some voodoo seesaw, with huge losses and zero growth over numerous decades, just to get higher numbers in the first century. But there is no evidence the rate fluctuated so wildly, or at all. Holding cannot say "Christianity was miraculously successful in the first century because I said so." It seems the only way to turn is either to accept the Stark model, or a model with even slower net growth than his--or abandon any assertions at all about how many Christians there were in the first century. No one can claim to know, and since Holding's argument requires knowing, his argument fails for lack of data. Any conclusion that actually has evidential support, even if we start with 5,000 Christians in the year 40, must still fit projections for the 3rd and 4th century, and when we do that--when we use the evidence we have--we never even approach 1% of the population by 100 A.D. In fact, we can barely pass 1/10th of 1%. The evidence simply does not exist to push the numbers higher.

The fact that larger numbers have no support does not entail the numbers weren't larger, only that we cannot claim to know they were. And this still means Holding can't claim to "know" the scale of Christianity's success was miraculous. Even in the realm of pure speculation, we find little help for his argument. Earlier we could estimate 400,000 total converts in the 1st century only by multiplying Starks' prediction by ten--for no reason whatsoever. This would allow for at most 100,000 members in 100 A.D., but again we're just making this up. We're not arguing from any evidence. But even if by chance we're right, that's still only 1 in 300 people converting over the course of sixty years of active recruitment. That means the largest estimate for the whole Empire by the end of the 1st century could never be greater than half of 1%. And again, such a size by 100 A.D. would entail a subsequent rate of growth far less than Stark's, even to meet the wildly inaccurate estimate of Gibbon for the size of the Roman church in mid-3rd century, much less Bagnall's data. And that's already stretching the evidence too far. In truth, the numbers must be less than 1/10th of 1%, probably far less, because that is the only estimate that actually fits the data well. So no matter how we try to tweak our growth model, the actual evidence permits only one conclusion: we cannot prove Christianity was attractive to any more than one out of every thousand people in the first century. That's simply not miraculous, or even surprising.

 

18.4. With Whom Did Christianity Begin?

Another important point worth a brief survey is the fact that Christianity's limited success in the first century was only among specifically targeted groups who already had their sympathies in the right place. And that meant Jews and Jewish sympathizers, and people for whom the social system was not working--especially the working class. As Paul admits, "not many who are wise in the flesh are called, nor many who are great or noble" (1 Corinthians 1:26). Those weren't Paul's target audiences. And as James writes, "did not God choose them that are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom?" And "do not the rich oppress you, and drag you into the courts?" (James 2:5-6). The social identity of first-century Christians is pretty clear in these remarks. I've discussed different aspects of this fact in several previous chapters already. So I will only round out the point here.

First, to say that Christianity appealed to the disgruntled lower classes, and not the elite, must not to be mistaken for claiming that Christianity was only successful among the poor, or that no rich people were attracted to it. A significant number of the middle class would be among the same groups sympathetic to the Christian message, including educated men, and men with middle-management positions in the government, who could easily become disillusioned with a system that wasn't working for them. As long as they were in a position to feel powerless within an unjust social system, despising and unable to enter or overcome the power and influence of those higher up the ladder, they would sympathize with the idea of an unjustly crucified hero, among many other elements of the Christian message. And their sympathy would be even greater if they already shared the point of view of those Jews who accepted an ideology of martyrdom and expected a suffering savior.

Modern scholars are agreed on the lower-class origins of the Christian movement. As John Polhill argues, Luke "had a concern for people who are oppressed and downtrodden," like "Samaritans and eunuchs," and "one of Luke's main concerns in Acts was to portray a church without human barriers, a community where the gospel is unhindered and truly inclusive."[15] Richard Rohrbaugh adds, "John is almost certainly a Galilean gospel" written for "a group which exists within a dominant society but as a conscious alternative to it ... an alienated group which had been pushed (or withdrawn) to the social margins where it stood as a protest to the values of the larger society" (or the corruption of those values, as I have explained in previous chapters), while Matthew targeted educated Jews and "the retainer class" among Greeks, and Mark targeted peasants and other members of the "agrarian class," among both Jews and pagans.[16] Christianity was most successful in finding sympathizers in these very audiences--those on the bottom, and those stuck in the middle, who were growing weary of the failure and corruption of the entire social system.

Christianity made little headway into the scholarly, administrative, or economic elite, until it had positions of power and authority to offer them, within a wealth-generating Church hierarchy (by the mid-to-late 2nd century), amidst an otherwise collapsing social system (in the mid-3rd century), which we will discuss below.[17] Rather, on the upper ends of the ladder Christianity was mainly attractive to the artisan class, and appealed to values held by them, and not shared by the elite. This is evident in Acts, as Ben Witherington observes:

The favorable attitude toward artisans in Luke-Acts was not a typical attitude of many in the upper strata of society, but it was typical of how artisans and retainers viewed themselves, and how Jews in general viewed work so long as it was not ritually defiling.

In fact, Witherington concludes that Luke himself "is not among the elite of society," since he "addresses Theophilus in a mode associated with a person who is willingly or unwillingly in a subordinate position to a person of rank in Roman society." He was most probably a member of the Equestrian class (in our terms, the upper middle class), since this would explain the widely favorable treatment of the values of artisans throughout Luke and Acts: Luke is playing to his audience.[18]

Thus, when we hear about "respectable" men and women converting (Acts 17:12), this implies no actual formal status, but refers to people of means who sought and held a good reputation in their community. Of course, Acts has obvious apologetic reasons to inflate Christianity's success among "respectable" people. Even so, the artisan class had its share of "respectable people" and it is clear that Christianity found friends in that community. Likewise, while we hear of Pharisee converts (not just Paul but others in Acts), it should be obvious that these were not the ones writing Talmudic precedent or running Rabbinical schools, but those who were (like Paul) marginalized within the Pharisee community, given relatively less authority and respect by more prestigious members of the sect, and who were therefore quite ready to sympathize with criticism of the ungodly snobbery of their peers.

At the same time, Christianity targeted mainly Jews and Jewish sympathizers, and worked its way through family acquaintances. "Early Christianity," DeSilva argues (Holding's very own source), "was basically a 'household' movement first in that it sought after the conversion of heads of households, whose dependents would follow them into the new faith" (p. 226). In fact, DeSilva goes on to document this fact from the New Testament itself in substantial detail. And, of course, I have already discussed the effective tactic of targeting women in Chapter 11. Any religion that secures the source of children, especially children of the masses (who far outnumber those of the elite), is going to have a tremendous social advantage.

It is also no accident that Christianity was most successful in the first century among prepared audiences: namely Jews and Jewish converts and sympathizers, who already had a good grounding in scripture, were already awed by the divine authority of that scripture, and already attracted to the relevant Jewish ideals (such as the heroism of martyrs and the value of moral austerity). It is notable, for example, that Paul converts only "some" Jews, but "a great multitude" of Judaized pagans, in Acts 17:1-4. The implication is that those who already showed a propensity to radically relocate themselves in the social environment were the ones most ready to buy the Christian message. Likewise, after their disheartening failure to gain significant headway in Palestine, most Christian success in Acts is gained in the Diaspora--and not just geographically, but ideologically: Diaspora Jews had the most cosmopolitan outlook, and had either been pagans or understood pagan ideals quite well. It should not surprise us that they were the most receptive to the Christian mission, which highly syncretized the best of Jewish and pagan ideals into a potent new faith, which sold itself as the perfect culmination of the oldest of all faiths.

Therefore, all these factors must be taken into account in any explanation of Christianity's limited success in its first hundred years. The correct explanation must explain not just where Christianity succeeded, but also where it failed. Holding's theory fails this test. According to his theory, those most able and willing to check the facts should have been the most impressed by Christian claims. Instead, they are the least impressed. Elite scholars and Palestinian Jews just weren't profitable markets for the early Christians. In contrast, my theory, which is also the theory advanced by many of Holding's own sources (Malina, Neyrey, Rohrbaugh, and DeSilva), and which nullifies Holding's theory, proposes that Christianity deliberately gave short shrift to elite values, perceptions, or expectations in order to appeal to the significantly different values, perceptions, and expectations of the lower classes, and of those in the upper classes who were located outside the echelons of real power or control--such as middlemen, women, and the slaves of prominent men. This theory predicts that Christianity would get a very cold, even hostile response from the elite, but find receptive audiences among prepared groups outside the elite. Only my theory fits the actual facts of history.[19]

 

18.5. The Rise of World Christianity

In the 3rd century the Roman Empire withered under fifty years of constant and devastating civil war and massive economic depression from which the Empire never really recovered.[20] By the end of that century, every social institution was in ruins. Even the economy collapsed, as the value of gold, silver, and coin plummeted so low that draconian measures had to be taken by the government even to keep basic services functioning. Numerous endowments for schools went bankrupt, so fewer were being educated. Artisans were increasingly drafted into armies and killed, thus breaking traditions of art and craft. Fascism was instituted, and the aristocracy was so ravaged by war, assassination, and lethargy that the military pretty much took over--not merely deciding who would rule (as it often had done before), but actually supplying new emperors and leaders from then on out. In the past, a glorious Senatorial career was the path to honors and power--now, a career in the government or the military was increasingly the only way to obtain either. What's more, the Empire fractured into two. Though it was occasionally reunited, the division only became worse over time, until it was complete. Then the Western Empire was destroyed, while the Eastern Empire slowly deflated into oblivion--meeting a slow death of a thousand years of shrinking talent and territory.

This collapse of a once-trusted social system, and the ensuing atmosphere of turmoil, ruin, and uncertainty, became perfect soil for the success of the Christian Church. Christianity could flourish during all this because it was a well-organized, empire-wide social-services institution that was not connected to or dependent on the system undergoing collapse. That was a powerful advantage. Had any other religion thought of this instead, and achieved this entirely natural advantage for itself, it might have replaced Christianity as the religious victor of the Western World. For because of this, Christianity could offer not only a current refuge and a future rescue from a world gone wild, but also a convenient explanation for why it was going to ruin (as explained in Chapter 6).

The Christians had set out from the beginning to create a "Kingdom of God" within the "Kingdom of Rome," a new community wherein society worked the way the poor and disgruntled wanted it to: realizing communism in place of capitalism, and erasing the privileges of class (exploitations of the system by the Church hierarchy notwithstanding). Once the Roman social system was going to ruin, even more members of society became poor, disgruntled, disenfranchised, or disillusioned than ever before--hence the very groups Christianity most appealed to were now the fastest growing! And the Christian Church had an established quasi-utopian system in place for them to flock to. For it had always sought to give these groups exactly what they most wanted, and by the 3rd century it was in a better position to provide it than any other institution.

The crisis of the 3rd century also threw the game to Christianity because Christians so fervently recruited women and the working classes. This was far more brilliant a move than the disastrous decision of Mithraists to target only men and to focus primarily on the army. They lost their investment when the army ended up utterly devastated over the course of the 3rd century. While Christians were winning over twice as many candidates, by appealing to two genders, and also earning a huge return on children born and raised into the faith by female converts, Mithraists were seeing none of that action, while watching their numbers get hacked away by fifty years of ceaseless civil war. Even a dunce can see who was going to win in that contest.

But it gets even worse for Mithraism: First, constant military disaster and hardship, without a consistent victory in sight, for two whole generations, was widely understood in antiquity to signal the failure of your religion. Therefore, by historical fate alone, Mithraism was doomed to be abandoned, because it was predominately supported by the very soldiers who were losing and thus seeing no benefit from their piety. Conversely, massive military losses had to be made up with fresh recruits--but who had been recruiting from the remaining pool of manpower? And who was now having more children for recruiters to draft? The Christians--thanks to their special attention to winning over women and the working class. Therefore, by the end of the 3rd century, thanks to the ordinary exigencies of historical fate, Mithraism became increasingly unpopular, while the armies, once bastions of Mithraism, were compelled to become increasingly Christian--at precisely the time when most new leaders of the Empire were coming from the military.

This is not to imply that I imagine Mithraism could have been the Christianity of the future. Mithraism never incorporated the elements of evangelism that constantly drove Christianity--right to the point of compelling belief on pain of death, torture, or intimidation. I see nothing in Mithraism that would ever have spawned such behavior, and consequently, had there been no Christianity, I suspect there would have simply remained the same religiously diverse society that so well served Rome for hundreds of years before that disastrous 3rd century. I focus on Mithraism only to provide an example of how Christianity got lucky breaks over its competitors, which played right into its hand. Of course, one could always claim God ruined society in order to secure Christianity's success, much as Christian apologists have claimed God arranged the murder of millions of Jews simply to bring about the formation of Israel, but I sure hope you have a more rational view of God. For surely an omnipotent being could have brought about both ends without all the pointless misery--and a compassionate God by definition would have. At any rate, historians have no trouble finding sufficient causes of these events in natural historical facts. So appeals to God are gratuitous.

The 3rd century was decisive in securing the grandiose success of later Christianity, and was indeed a lucky draw from the deck--since nothing about Christianity itself, or caused by it, had anything to do with bringing that crisis about. This was a crisis of the pagan world's own doing. So we can't blame Christianity for the fall of the Roman Empire. The triumph of Christianity was a symptom of that fall, not its cause. But there was also a sense in which Christianity exploited this niche by design. Though the early Christians had no way of knowing how everything would fall apart in two hundred years, they certainly saw the cracks forming, and specifically sought to repair them, with their moral vision of social reform. And for that very reason, in its first few centuries Christianity did look like it was working, in a way the wider social system was not--especially since the major social institutions of the time were increasingly failing, getting worse and worse, in exactly those same centuries (thanks to increasing, unchecked corruption--of the very same sort that would lead to the collapse of the 3rd century), thus making Christianity look remarkably good, even supernaturally prescient, by comparison. Their timing couldn't have been better. Luck strikes again.

Had the Empire maintained the Pax Romana of the glory years, with the wealth and progress of the 1st and early 2nd century, or had the Senate established a stable constitutional government by the 3rd century (as the movie Gladiator pretended was the real plan of Marcus Aurelius) instead of fifty years of civil war, I suspect Christianity would have been doomed--not to oblivion, but at least to obscurity. Today, Christians would perhaps be a small fringe cult, as they had been before, competing for customers with scores of other cults and sects (assuming the West remained as religious as it actually has). I suspect this because were the Roman armies victorious and prosperous instead of decimated and ruined, Mithraism would have been vindicated, and would not have lost its hold on the army (though, as I've said, I doubt it would have become a universal religion, even within the ranks). At the same time, Christianity would not have had as much to offer anymore, as peace and prosperity would gradually claim more and more potential converts by giving them what they wanted: material happiness and security at the hands of a successful--and therefore "obviously" divinely sanctioned--pagan government.

It wouldn't be that simple, of course--any number of unexpected things could happen in the absence of what actually did--and I am assuming such a period of peace and prosperity in Rome would have opened the door to realizing the trends, advocated among the philosophical elite, toward greater justice, equality, and reason, instead of Roman society becoming more unequal, unjust, superstitious, and socially polarized as in fact it did. I might be wrong about that. But I doubt I am wrong about the clear advantages the chaos of the 3rd century gave to Christianity against its competitors--particularly when we factor in the very convenient timing of the fact that its natural rate of growth accelerated Christianity's numbers to significant levels exactly during that very century (as Stark, Hopkins, and Finn explain), and when we take into account the fact that everyone is eager to try something new when everything old has failed. Had everything old not failed, "new ideas" like Christianity would have ceased to gain much purchase. And had the natural progression of steady growth not coincided so well with the collapse of pagan society, it is probable that the forces opposed to Christianity would have succeeded, if not in destroying it, certainly in changing it into something very different (as had happened to many other imported cults). Instead, with Christianity's victory over society, elite ideals were vanquished. And a thousand years of ruin ensued.

 

18.6. Conclusion

Holding wrote his essay to respond to the contrary claim that Christianity originated, and originally flourished, among "suckers," people so gullible they'd believe anything, no matter how absurd. As usual for Holding, that's an exaggeration of what his critics really say. Those who converted to Christianity did indeed have a backward method of inquiry, fervently clung to anti-empirical values, were substantially ignorant of most of what they really needed to know to make a sound judgment, and held very different assumptions about God, man, and the universe than we do. But this does not mean they would have believed anything. It only means that the things they would be inclined to believe--and in fact did believe (even apart from Christianity)--were not limited to the truth, but in fact encompassed a great deal of nonsense. After all, these were people who really thought God lived in outer space, that the whole universe revolved around his only created Earth, that demons possessed their neighbors and caused madness and disease, that supernatural beings inhabiting the air spoke and appeared to people or worked spells on them, and that all bad people were puppets of Satan. Clearly they had a lot of false beliefs. Claiming their belief that "Jesus rose from the grave" was false, too, is hardly a stretch.

And that's the real issue here: Holding is upset by early Christians being called "suckers" and early Christian ideology "absurd," but the fact is these are relative terms. From their point of view they were not suckers, but fortunate--most of them got what they wanted, or very near to it: a brief glimpse of happiness and comfort within a surrogate family that really met their needs, emotionally and materially, with a hope of even more in a utopian future. And they took a shot at what they honestly thought would right the wrongs of their dysfunctional society. They were wrong. But then, being wrong about a grand plan to fix society puts them in good historical company. Likewise, converts didn't think a Christian's claims were absurd. That's why they converted. These ideas were only "absurd" to those committed to worldviews very different from the masses--particularly the ancient naturalists and their sympathizers. It just so happens that those naturalists turned out to be on the right track, and the mystics on the wrong one. Hence a modern scientific thinker has far more right to call early Christian beliefs "absurd" than even the ancient critics did. But our charge of absurdity comes from knowledge--knowledge the ancients didn't have.

Furthermore, the word "sucker" implies being duped by a con man, but there is no need to suppose they were being "conned." I'll bet those who started the movement really believed their dreams, visions, and interpretations of scripture. But even at worst they concocted these things for a noble moral purpose, not for material gain, nor in some scheme to "steal souls" or any such nonsense. Later Christians are a different story. But I am sure the first Christians were sincere. They really thought they had a Good Idea for Saving the World. And that feeling is a powerful drug. It has fueled every zealot, every fanatic, every passionate revolutionary in history. Likewise, to say someone would believe "anything, no matter how absurd," implies they would believe it even knowing it was absurd. But that isn't the case here. Early Christian beliefs were not seen as absurd by converts, only by critics--because converts and critics embraced very different worldviews right from the start. No Christian would have believed anything they felt was absurd--and they didn't. For example, to a Christian it was absurd even to think that a courageous and morally upright man who could heal the sick and expel demons was not an emissary of God's will. Of course, this means their definition of absurdity was very different from ours.

What we have seen throughout all these chapters is that Christianity was indeed repulsive, absurd, or just plain false from the point of view of most people of the time, pretty much as Holding says. But Christianity never attracted most people--by honest argument and evidence, that is, since the use of force and political and social pressure was ultimately necessary to win the majority, centuries after the mission began. It is quite true that had Christianity made itself more attractive to more people, it would have been more successful than it was, more quickly, and with far less effort. But the end result was the same: over time Christianity changed to become more attractive to more people, by developing more appealing doctrines and incorporating popular festivals and superstitions. That was the only way it really could succeed--and that was the only way it actually did. Just imagine how horrified Paul would have been at the Cult of Saints, for example, which was really just polytheism in disguise, complete with revering statues and artifacts and praying to specific "deities" who had power over specific aspects of life. With that system in place, the average pagan could hardly tell the difference between his beliefs and a Christian's. And even today, only by making itself "more popular" has any branch of Christianity managed to succeed in the modern free world.[21]

But in the beginning, Christianity was a radical idea to most, and so was not successful by any objective standard--except within a very small cross-section of the population, primarily those disgruntled with or oppressed by the values and institutions of the dominant society. And from the point of view of those few Christianity was an attractive idea whose time had come. This minority did not need "irrefutable" evidence that Jesus rose from the grave, because they had "irrefutable" evidence that the Christian message had the backing of God: in the moral superiority of believers, and their ability to work miracles, interpret scripture with surprising insight, and speak of God's will with charismatic inspiration. This is hardly "irrefutable" evidence for us--because we know a lot more than they did about human nature and the workings of the body, mind, and universe. We know that none of their "evidences" entails the conclusion, or even so much as strongly implies it. But that's us. We have the advantage of hindsight, and of scientific reason and understanding. They didn't. That doesn't make them "suckers." It just makes them wrong. Nor does it mean their beliefs were "absurd." It just means they were false.

 

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Notes

[1] Acts 13:46-48, 18:6, 28:24-31. For the rest of this chapter I will ignore Holding's declaration that those who joined a Christian sect for completely insincere reasons, or those who joined Christian sects condemned in the NT (e.g. Galatians 1:6-9; 1 Corinthians 1:12, 3:4-6; 2 Corinthians 11:4, 13; 2 Thessalonians 2:2-5, 15; 1 Timothy 4:1-3, 7, 5:15; 2 Timothy 2:16-18, 3:4-7, 9-10, 13-14; 2 Peter 2:1-3, 3:16; 1 John 4:1; Jude 3-4, 8-16; Romans 16:17-18, Philemon 1:15-17, Hebrews 13:8-9), were not "real" Christians. If we accept Holding's definition, then the number of "real" Christians may be far lower than the number of those who were called Christians, and therefore all evidence of the number of "Christians" is useless to us, for none of it provides any reliable distinction between Holding's categories of "true" and "false" Christians.

[2] Scholars agree Christianity was always more successful in cities than in the countryside, and targeted its mission in the first century to urban populations (as exemplified in Acts). Therefore, Christians would be disproportionately represented in cities. If the urban population amounted to as much as 10 million out of the total 60 million (cf. Note 9), and at least half of all conversions were urban (in the first century it was probably even more than that), then the percentage of any major city's population that would be Christian in 64 A.D. would be 0.0224 if the percentage of the entire population at that time was 0.0037. Therefore, the Stark model (discussed later) predicts that over 150 Christians would be in Rome to face Nero's witch-hunt, even though the total number of Christians empire-wide would barely top 2300. By the third century, the Christian mission would have expanded into the country and small towns. But in the first century, there could easily have been a hundred or more Christians in Rome for Nero to round up. Of course, given what we know of Nero, innocent people falsely accused of being Christians could have added to this number.

[3] Suetonius, Life of Claudius 25.4. See "Suetonius" in Jeffery Jay Lowder, "Josh McDowell's 'Evidence' for Jesus: Is It Reliable?" (2000).
       Suetonius writes Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit, "He expelled the Jews from Rome who were constantly raising a tumult because of the instigator Chrestus." This could not refer to Christians for several reasons, among them: (1) Suetonius makes no such mistake elsewhere, where he knows who the Christians are and how to refer to them--so if he meant Christians here, he would have said something like "because of the Christians" and not "because of the instigator Christ." (2) Suetonius did not write "because of the instigator Christ" but "because of the instigator Chrestus," and Chrestus was a common Greek name (and a common nickname, which meant Handy, Happy, or Goodfellow), and though a misspelling is possible (either by a later scribe or Suetonius' source), that would be mere speculation. (3) Claudius would not expel "the Jews raising a tumult" rather than the Christians, since the Jews had a protected legal status and the Christians did not. For example, neither Gallio nor the Asiarchs of Ephesus expelled the rioters in their towns--they expelled the Christians whose presence provoked the riots--and if it was the Christians whom Claudius expelled, Suetonius would have said so. (4) The phrase "because of the instigator Chrestus" makes no sense as a reference to a dead man or a god. The word instigator very specifically means a man who performs the act, not the idea of a man, nor does it ever refer to the abstract idea of "instigation" or "cause." Therefore, Suetonius plainly meant some actual person was actively instigating the riots, someone whose name was Chrestus. He would not refer to what was in his view a nonexistent God with such a phrase, nor could he have meant "because of Christ" in any other sense of the word.
       The same conclusion follows for three other "facts" sometimes appealed to for establishing Christian numbers: (1) The report by Cassius Dio (Roman History 67.14) that Diocletian trumped up bogus charges of atheism against several people in or connected to his family as if they had "fallen into Jewish customs" contains no reference to Christians, even though Dio certainly knew who Christians were, and the account of Suetonius (Domitian 10) doesn't even mention Judaism or Christianity--he says only that the charges were trivial and bogus--and at any rate, neither of them mention numbers. (2) 1 Corinthians 4:14-17 says only "if you were to have tens of thousands of tutors in Christ..." (it is a subjunctive counterfactual construction, which means they did not have tens of thousands of tutors--note that the word "myriad" also often meant simply "countless" and is thus a hyperbolic expression). (3) The catacombs provide no useful evidence regarding Christian numbers because they began as pagan burial tombs by the end of the 2nd century and were only gradually taken over by Christians in the early 3rd century, while most of the extant catacombs were constructed in the 4th century, and all of them were continually reused for more than three centuries. For all three reasons there is no secure way to identify the number of Christian burials in the 3rd century.

[4] Sulpicius Severus, Chronica 2.30.6-8. The strongest advocate for Tacitean authorship is Eric Laupot in "Tacitus' Fragment 2: The Anti-Roman Movement of the Christiani and the Nazoreans," Vigiliae Christianae 54.3 (2000): pp. 233-47. Laupot's arguments are multiply flawed, but there is no need to argue the point here. I point out the substantial flaws in Richard Carrier, "Severus Is Not Quoting Tacitus: A Rebuttal to Eric Laupot" (2006). But chief among those flaws is the fact that Severus plainly appears to be quoting or paraphrasing a source that credited God with ensuring the Temple's destruction, something Tacitus would never do--while another author who clearly used the same source makes no mention of Titus having Christianity in mind (compare Severus, above, with Orosius, History Against the Pagans 7.9.4-6).

[5] See evidence presented in Richard Carrier, "The Plausibility of Theft," Jeff Lowder & Bob Price, eds., The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005): pp. 349-68, as well as Richard Carrier, "The Nazareth Inscription" (2000).

[6] Tacitus, Annals 15.44. Tacitus says the charge of arson was probably a bogus accusation that merely served to shift blame for the burning of Rome off Nero and onto a hated minority--which entails that Christianity was otherwise not illegal at the time, since false charges were needed to kill them.
       In case anyone might question the point, it is clear the formal charge was arson, as we can see from Tacitus, who consciously employs formal legal terminology: (1) "In order to get rid of the rumor" that he had burned Rome, "Nero invented culprits," where reus (culprit) is the formal term for a defendant at trial--it is the standard word for a person charged with a crime or tort--and since the very purpose for "inventing" defendants is to shift the blame for arson, clearly arson had to be the charge. (2) "Therefore, at first those were seized who confessed," where fateor is also the formal term for admitting guilt--and the context makes clear they had to be confessing to arson, since that was the offense "invented" for which they became "defendants." (3) "Then, from evidence they provided, a huge number were convicted" (indicio, "evidence," is another legal term, and convinco, "proved guilty," is a formal term for winning a conviction at trial). (4) Tacitus then says they were convicted "not as much for the crime of arson as because of the hatred of the human race," thus outright saying that the real, formal "crime" (crimen) was "arson" (incendium), while the ulterior motive that led to "inventing" this charge against them was "hatred of the human race" (which can mean either that the human race hated them or that the Christians hated the human race--but the former is more likely, since it directly states what is grammatically expected: the motive of their accusers--here "hatred," as opposed to, e.g., jealousy, bloodlust, envy, or greed). (5) Tacitus does say that as a result of their treatment, "although it was against those who were guilty and deserved the most extreme deterrents, sympathy for them arose, as they were destroyed not so much for the public good, but to serve the savagery of one man," but here Tacitus drops the formal legal vocabulary, and is thus issuing a personal judgment against Christians.

[7] Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.97.1. In Roman law, when someone went to trial the relevant law stated how the judge was to apply a "formula" to the case, which simply made it a matter of satisfying the formula with adequate evidence. Trajan is saying there is no such formula. Therefore, there was no law. What's more, Trajan specifically rejects the opportunity to make one. He could have "established" a formula, but instead says it is impossible to do so. On the legal status of Christians as well as the crime of illegal association, see: Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, Roman Civilization: Selected Readings, 3rd ed., vol. 2 (1990): § 51-52 (see also § 169 and n. 37 in § 68); Timothy Barnes, "Legislation Against the Christians," Journal of Roman Studies 58 (1968): pp. 32-50; W. H. C. Frend, "Martyrdom and Political Oppression," The Early Christian World, ed. Philip Esler, vol. 1 (2000): pp. 815-39.

[8] "Pliny (2) the Younger," The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. (1996): p. 1198. Pliny had served as governor of Bithynia for well over a year (cf. Letters 10.15, 10.17b, and 10.88) before even learning there were any Christians in his province.

[9] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (1996): pp. 4-13. I have seen estimates as high as 120 million for the total population of the whole Empire, but never lower than 60 million (the number Stark embraces), and of course the population no doubt fluctuated, especially during famines and plagues, of which there were a few catastrophic examples in the first three centuries. I will assume the figure of 60 million is more or less correct.

[10] It is worth noting that many assumptions of Stark have been challenged or corrected by actual historians of antiquity in a work that should now be required reading on the subject of the expansion of Christianity: W.V. Harris, ed., The Spread of Christianity in the First Four Centuries: Essays in Explanation (2005). All the conclusions reached by this collection of scholars support or corroborate my analysis in this and other chapters of this critique and stand as a good corrective to Holding. Other critics include Jack Sanders (see Note 19 below), and Bruce Malina, who has argued that Stark's estimated growth rate is too high:

220 bishops (so Henry Chadwick) attended the Council of Nicea called by Constantine in A.D. 325. These bishops functioned in a face-to-face society. Now in a face-to-face society the maximum number of persons with whom one can interact is ca. 4,000 (so the anthropologist, Jeremy Boissevain); hence, "scientifically" speaking (that is, mathematically), the number of Christians at the time of the Council of Nicea was ca. 880,000, the result of a growth rate of ca. 2.5 percent per year [hence Stark] postulates a growth rate that is exaggeratedly high.

-- Bruce Malina, Book Review of Rodney Stark's The Rise of Christianity, in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 59 (1997): pp. 593-595.

However, I am skeptical of Malina's assumptions, and most scholars argue for a much larger Christian presence by the 4th century (about five times Malina's number), so I will assume the "exaggeratedly high" estimates of Stark are at present the most reasonable. But Stark's model only estimates a rate of growth of roughly 3.42% per year--so if there was one missionary for every hundred members, he would convince less than 4 more people to join each year, which is not remarkable.
       Note that in models like Stark's, growth stops when "market saturation" is achieved (i.e. when all customers who want the product have bought the product), and there is no telling when Christianity actually hit that ceiling. But in order not to bias his results with contrary assumptions, Stark assumes there was no such ceiling (i.e. that everyone could be convinced the product was desirable), which suits Holding, but probably not reality. In reality, Christianity probably never could have gained a majority until it became favored by Rome, and then required by Rome, two conditions that each would have expanded the attractiveness of the product and thus raised the ceiling for market saturation. This was especially true when Christians started killing those who didn't buy it, thus gaining 100% saturation only by outright eliminating nonbuyers--by analogy, picture Microsoft actually murdering all Mac users and then boasting "Everyone uses Windows!"

[11] Keith Hopkins, "Christian Number and Its Implications," Journal of Early Christian Studies 6.2 (1998): pp. 185-226. In case readers expect disclosure, Hopkins is a close friend of my dissertation advisor (William Harris) at Columbia University, and also wrote a very clever and fascinating work of historical fiction on ancient religion and the means Christianity used to exploit popular religious culture to its own advantage (Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity, 2001). I also studied papyrology for an entire year at Columbia under Roger Bagnall, who is also one of the world's leading experts on ancient demography, especially the evidence for Christian growth in surviving Egyptian documents. And I am a personal friend of Alan Segal, whose critically acclaimed book on ancient afterlife beliefs I have cited in previous chapters.

[12] Thomas Finn, "Mission and Expansion," The Early Christian World, ed. Philip Esler, vol. 1 (2000): pp. 295-315; Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (1987): pp. 268-69 (later centuries: 314-17).

[13] Origen, Against Celsus 8.69.

[14] Eusebius, History of the Church 6.43.11.

[15] John Polhill, Acts: The New American Commentary 1992: pp. 49-50.

[16] Richard Rohrbaugh, "The Jesus Tradition: The Gospel Writers' Strategies of Persuasion," The Early Christian World, ed. Philip Esler, vol. 1 (2000): pp. 218-19, pp. 211-14, pp. 209-10.

[17] On the scant few first-century conversions among the elite claimed in the sources, see Note 10 in Chapter 1 and Note 25 in Chapter 7.
       Note that Stark does try to argue against the mainstream view that Christianity had more success above than below, but Fox and Hopkins correct Stark on this point (see Stark, Hopkins, and Fox, cited above): Stark does not adequately take into account the fact that all written texts, by the very nature of being written, come from Christians of higher social class than most, requiring both the skills and peculiar motivation to put pen to paper, which were distinctions of the educated class (which ranged wider than just the scholarly elite). As a result, Christian texts overrepresent the interests of families with the unusual means and connections to support an education for their children. More careful reading is required to identify the overall status and origins of the whole body of Christian converts, and actual historians have done this work (like Polhill and Rohrbaugh), arriving at the consensus position that Christianity actually got started from the bottom up.
       Additionally, had it been the case that hundreds of elites were being converted, we would probably have a much larger body of letters and texts from the first century (as Hopkins explains), allowing a reconstruction of the leading families involved and their connections to each other. Instead, we have very little writing from first century Christians, and very little information regarding who wrote these things or what their connections were to other elite converts. This state of evidence supports the conclusion that only a small penetration of the educated class was achieved in that century.

[18] Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (1998): p. 55. The word kratistos (Greek for both egregius or clarissimus in the Latin) could denote an Equestrian or a Senator. However, before the 2nd century it is unlikely a Senator would have, or be addressed by, a non-Roman name like Theophilus. Even if he had that name, a Senator's formal Roman name would take priority in a proper address.

[19] Robin Lane Fox accomplishes a superb survey of the social marketing of early Christianity in Pagans and Christians (1987), esp. pp. 293-96, 299-304, 308-11, 317-18, 330. Fox also defends the same theory I do, e.g. pp. 334-35. On god-fearers and Jews as main targets: pp. 318-19. Stark agrees, and though Jack Sanders rightly corrects many of Stark's erroneous claims in this regard (see Charisma, Converts, Competitors: Societal and Sociological Factors in the Success of Early Christianity, 2000: pp. 135-59), Sanders also errs or confuses the issue by not distinguishing a wider audience of Gentiles from Gentiles who were sympathetic to and thus socially connected with Judaism. Sanders also conflates historical periods in his analysis (except when he discusses the changing fortunes of women within Christianity).
       It is worth noting that the evidence for god-fearers (pagan converts or quasi-converts to Judaism) is significant in the first two centuries, unlike the evidence for Christians--which suggests that this class outnumbered Christians for at least a good hundred years or more. See: Margaret Williams, "VII.2. Pagans Sympathetic to Judaism" and "VII.3. Pagan Converts to Judaism," The Jews Among the Greeks and Romans: A Diasporan Sourcebook, 1998: pp. 163-79.

[20] For quick surveys of everything that follows: John Drinkwater, "Maximinus to Diocletian and the 'Crisis'," The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume 12: The Crisis of Empire, AD 193-337, 2nd ed. (2005), pp. 28-66; "The Third Century," Mary Boatwright, et al., The Romans: From Village to Empire (2004): pp. 431-58; "The Crisis of the Empire in the Third Century," M. Cary & H. Scullard, A History of Rome down to the Reign of Constantine, 3rd ed. (1975): pp. 507-16; and the introduction to Averil Cameron's The Later Roman Empire: A.D. 284-430 (1993): pp. 1-12 (and see the works listed there on pp. 209-10). For more detail: Stephen Williams, Diocletian and the Roman Recovery (1997); Pat Southern, The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine (2001); and Michael Grant, The Collapse and Recovery of the Roman Empire (1999). On the collapse of the economy, see: Dominic Rathbone, "Prices and Price Formation in Roman Egypt," Economie Antique: Prix et Formation Des Prix Dans Les Economies Antiques, eds. Jean Andreau, Pierre Briant and Raymond Descat (1997): pp. 183-244.

[21] See, for example, Roger Finke & Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (1993).


Copyright ©2006 by Richard Carrier. The electronic version is copyright ©2006 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Richard Carrier. All rights reserved.

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