Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Number of church members in the first century?

#AngieD Says:
September 16th, 2007 at 10:05 am e

I teach Gospel Doctrine in my ward, and find the discussions on this site to be stimulating and useful in my lesson preparation. Thank youm everyone!

A question came up today during our discussion of 1 Corinthians. By the time Paul was writing his letters, how many Christians were there? Can anyone point me to a reliable estimate of early Christian population numbers in the first century AD?

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# Robert C. Says:
September 17th, 2007 at 9:09 am e

AngieD, I’ve been trying to find an answer to this question to no avail. Surely any estimate will be a pretty wild guess, but I’m guessing someone has studied this and could say whether it’s more likely that Christians numbers hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands. Stay tuned, I’ll keep looking (and if I can’t find anything, I’ll write a more visible post to see if someone else can’t help us track down an informed answer…).

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# AngieD Says:
September 22nd, 2007 at 4:05 pm e

Robert, have you had any luck with this question? I’ve found this source:

http://literaryarchitects.com/bookstore/Bittinger9781933669076/Bittinger9781933669076_ch5.pdf

The table on p. 4 indicates that there were 1 million Christians in 100 AD, and nearly 20 million by 300 AD. My gut tells me that those numbers are too high.

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# Robert C. Says:
September 22nd, 2007 at 5:22 pm e

Sorry, Angie, I haven’t found much. Here is an article that says half a million members at the close of the century is probably too high of an estimate:

As to the numerical strength of Christianity at the close of the first century, we have no information whatever. Statistical reports were unknown in those days. The estimate of half a million among the one hundred millions or more inhabitants of the Roman empire is probably exaggerated. The pentecostal conversion of three thousand in one day at Jerusalem,228 and the “immense multitude” of martyrs under Nero,229 favor a high estimate. The churches in Antioch also, Ephesus, and Corinth were strong enough to bear the strain of controversy and division into parties.230 But the majority of congregations were no doubt small, often a mere handful of poor people. In the country districts paganism (as the name indicates) lingered longest, even beyond the age of Constantine. The Christian converts belonged mostly to the middle and lower classes of society, such as fishermen, peasants, mechanics, traders, freedmen, slaves.

I also found this page which gives an estimate of the population of Corinth at the time (between 600,000-700,000), which I thought was interesting, but probably not very helpful.

Also, based on the article you linked to, I found a couple more interesting charts listed here (the two GD-04 links in particular). I couldn’t find any methodology given (and the Bittinger chapter you linked to seemed to base everything off these other estimates), but clearly there must be huge confidence intervals in the estimates. By the way, 800,000 is given in one of these charts as the estimate for 100 A.D., which I think your article just rounded up to 1 million. But, according to these charts, there was exponential growth in the first decades, so it looks like at the time of Paul’s letters there were more like 10,000-20,000 members.

(For those who don’t happen to look at logarithmic graphs on a regular basis like I do for work, if you look at the horizontal lines above the “1,000 members” line, each line represents an additional 1000 members, and above the 10,000 line, each line represents an additional 10,000 members, etc. So, in 55 A.D. it looks like there are roughly 15,000 members according to this graph….)

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# Jim F. Says:
September 22nd, 2007 at 5:30 pm e

The archaological problems are enormous enough that it is very difficult to estimate populations of ancient cities. Estimating what percentage of the population at large was Christian is, I think, no more than stabbing in the dark. There may be weak clues about some individual churches, but we don’t even know where all of the ancient Christian churches were, much less how many members they had.

Think about the difficulty of figuring out how many active LDS there are and then multiply that difficulty many, many times. That’s what it would be is like trying to get an accurate count of Christians 2,000 years ago.

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# AngieD Says:
September 23rd, 2007 at 4:22 am e

Thanks to you both, Robert and Jim. I do realize, of course, that it’s impossible to come up with firm numbers. But it is interesting to see the attempts!

One Response to “Number of church members in the first century?”

  1. Steve Wilcox said

    I just listened to a sermom by evenagelist Kenneth Cox on the first of the seven churches of Revelation(Ephesus)who said their were 50,000 Christians in Ephesus alone and approximately 7 million throughout Asia by the end of the first century. He did not cite his source so I will do some followup with him.

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