How Many Christians Were There in 200 A.D.?

My Baylor colleague Philip Jenkins has a fascinating post over at the Anxious Bench blog, in which he provides estimates for the number of Christians living in 200 A.D. Citing the work of our mutual Baylor colleague Rodney Stark on the early church, Jenkins notes that Stark

estimated a global Christian population of 40,000 in AD 150, rising to 218,000 in 200, and 1.17 million by 250. According to his calculation, it was around 180 that global Christian numbers first surpassed the symbolically weighty figure of 100,000.

Stark would be the first to admit that those figures are anything but precise, but they provide plausible limits. If someone suggested a Christian population in 200 as ten thousand, or as ten million, then they would assuredly be wrong. But a range anywhere from (say) 150,000 to 350,000 would be quite plausible.

There are some reasons to place the figure for AD 200 a bit higher than Stark proposed. One specific issue concerns the total population with which Stark is working, which is that of the Roman Empire. His estimate for the overall Roman population is rather lower than more recent estimates, and Christian numbers must be adjusted accordingly.

Another wildcard in these numbers, Jenkins notes, is that the Christian world was already badly divided, so some estimates may not take into account groups already regarded as heretical.

For the sake of argument, let us suggest a global Christian population of perhaps 250,000. That represents a stunning expansion from the small groups we glimpse in apostolic times, but the number is tiny when we think of the vast geographical extent of the large world, from Mesopotamia to Britain. It is also a tiny fraction of that world – perhaps 0.36 percent of whole population of the Roman Empire at this time, or one in three hundred…

Even taking the most optimistic view, Christians at this stage were extremely thinly spread.

Overwhelmingly, Christianity was an urban faith, and we recall Tertullian’s boast about “almost all” the city dwellers being Christian. In fact they weren’t, but the remark does suggest how easily Christians might be found in major urban centers. The largest Christian communities were in the six or so leading cities of the Roman Empire, including Rome itself, Carthage, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Ephesus, and Antioch.

Stark has explained the growth of the church in these centuries in books like The Rise of Christianity, and we can look forward to more analysis from Jenkins on these matters, too.

Jenkins concludes his post with a tantalizing observation, given the faith’s small presence in 200 A.D.: “to think that little over a century after that point, Christianity would be the dominant religion in the whole Roman Empire.”

Read the whole post at Patheos.

Visit TGC Evangelical History

Know the LORD

This post, another written and shared by Gretchen, is a great read. We love Gretchen’s heart – you can see it clearly here.

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There’s a chilling sentence tucked in at the end of Judges 2, “And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD…”   How could that have happened?  And then, I remember…

Many years ago I unexpectedly found myself a single mother of two young children, then four and five years old.  As I was searching through the Scriptures for hope and encouragement, I was profoundly impacted by the words of Deuteronomy 6:5-9:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.  Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.

Now, I’d been a Christian since I was a young child, had attended church my entire life, been to countless Bible studies, and had even done a stint at Bible college.  Still, as I read those verses, my heart was confronted with the reality that I didn’t love God like that, nor did I know the Bible thoroughly enough to talk about it as I was sitting at home or walking along the road.  God’s words were not written, even metaphorically, on the door frames of my house or on my gate.  When I think back on that moment, it’s a poignant reminder that my own children could have been part of “another generation after them who did not know the LORD.”

The parents of the generation referred to at the end of Judges 2 were those who had seen God’s presence with them in the wilderness as cloud by day and fire by night, who had experienced His provision and protection in the wilderness for 40 years, who had seen Him flatten the walls of Jericho and bring the other miraculous victories that had given them the land in which they now lived.  Some of them would have been children when they witnessed how God parted the Red Sea and saved the entire nation of Israel. And yet, a generation arose after them who did not know the LORD.

God had implored them not to let that happen, not just once in the verses above in Deuteronomy 6, but many times. In Deuteronomy 4:9, the Lord says, “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children…”  In Judges 4 we’re told how the Israelites crossed the Jordan River on dry ground, and how the Lord commanded them to set up 12 stones as a memorial so that, “In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’”  Psalm 78 says, “He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments…”  In the New Testament, too, the Lord instructs parents to teach their children about him.  In Ephesians 6, fathers are told to bring their children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.  These are but a few examples from the whole of Scripture.

With the jolting words of Judges 2 in front of us, how do we avoid being the forerunners of a generation after us who doesn’t know the Lord?  Certainly, we need to pursue knowing Him more deeply so that our hearts and lives reflect who He is to the next generation.  They need to see our hearts being responsive to the Lord and His Word as we live, work, parent, and serve.  We need to be transparent about our failures and struggles and the way in which the Lord loves us in the midst of them.  And, we need to speak often of His steadfast love and faithfulness through all of joys and sorrows of life.

Recently I had the great blessing of hearing a woman in her 80s speak about God’s faithfulness in her life.  Her father had abandoned her and her mom when she was a toddler.  Her stepfather was killed in World War II.  She had grown up to become a teacher of missionary children in the Philippines and had gone on to serve by encouraging missionaries all over the world.  As a single—and in recent years, elderly—woman, she had traveled through many dangerous cities.

As this lovely woman spoke, she recounted God’s faithfulness to her through all of her life experiences, both good and bad.  When she finished, one was not left thinking what a remarkable woman she is (though she certainly is), but rather, what an amazing, loving, faithful God she has loved and served all these years.  Though she doesn’t have children of her own, this is the God she has shared with countless children all over the world.  She is a precious example of what it means to share with the next generation what knowing God—really knowing Him—means.

I’m a single parent in my 50s.  You may be a parent of infants or grown-ups, a single man or woman, a pastor, a teacher, a big brother or sister, or a grandparent.  Will you join me in seeking the Lord so that decades from now it will not be said of us, “And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD…”?   Instead, let us share with the next generation what Jesus said in John 17:3, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”