- Christian Number and Its Implications
This paper is an experiment in both method and substance. Substantively, I want to show that, in all probability, there were very few Christians in the Roman world, at least until the end of the second century. I then explore the implications of small number, both absolutely, and as a proportion of the empire’s total population. 1
One tentative but radical conclusion is that Christianity was for a century after Jesus’ death the intellectual property at any one time of scarcely a few dozen, perhaps rising to two hundred, literate adult males, dispersed throughout the Mediterranean basin. A complementary conclusion (of course, well known in principle, but not often explored for its implications) is that by far the greatest growth in Christian numbers took place in two distinct phases: first, during the third century, when Christians and their leaders were the victims of empire-wide and centrally organized persecutions; and then in the fourth century, after the conversion of Constantine and the alliance of the church with the Roman state under successive emperors. The tiny size of the early church, and the scale and speed of its later growth each had important implications for Christianity’s character and organization.
My methods are frankly speculative and exploratory. For the moment, [End Page 185] I am interested more in competing probabilities, and in their logical implications, than in established or establishable facts. That may not be as problematic as it at first appears. Facts require interpretation. Only the naive still believe that facts or “evidence” are the only, or even the most important ingredients of history. What matters at least as much is who is writing, or reading the history, with what prejudices or questions in mind, and how those questions can best be answered. Facts and evidence provide not the framework, but the decoration to those answers. 2
One of my main objectives in this paper is to show how the same “facts,” differently perceived, generate competing, but complementary understandings. For example, leading Christians were highly conscious of their sect’s rapid growth, and understandably proud of their “large numbers.” But many Romans, both leaders and ordinary folk, long remained ignorant of and unworried by Christians, probably because of their “objectively” small numbers and relative social insignificance. Such differential perceptions often occur, then and now. Perhaps these discrepancies were all the more pervasive in a huge and culturally complex empire, with very slow communications. So, the Roman or religious historian has the delicate job of understanding and analyzing these networks of complementary but conflicting meanings—and at the same time, the exciting task of finding, inventing, or borrowing best methods for constructing critical paths through or round our patchy knowledge of what inevitably remains an alien society.
My first task is to calculate the size and growth in the number of Christians during the first four centuries c.e. But before I do that, a word of caution. The term Christian is itself more a persuasive than an objective category. By this, I mean that ancient Christian writers may often have counted as “Christian” a number of people who would not have thought of themselves as Christian, or who would not have taken Christianity as their primary self-identifier. As I imagine it, ambiguity of religious identity was particularly pervasive in a polytheistic society, because polytheists were accustomed to seek the help of strange gods occasionally, or in a crisis, or on a wave of fashion. Or put another way, [End Page 186] it was only in a limited number of cases or contexts in ancient society that religious affinity was a critical indicator of cultural identity. But monotheistic Christians, whether out of hope, or the delusion of enthusiasm, chose gratefully to perceive Jewish or pagan interest as indicative of a commitment, which Christians idealized as exclusive. It is this exclusivism, idealized or practiced, which marks Christianity off from most other religious groups in the ancient world
So ancient Christian leaders (and modern historians) may have chosen to consider as Christian a whole range of ambiguous cases, such as occasional visitors to meetings, pious Jewish god-fearers who also attended...