“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.”
I have been involved in a project on the early church, around the year 200 AD. My first basic question concerns the issue of numbers, and the results offer some surprises.
Just how many Christians were there in 200? Around 197, Tertullian’s Apology made extravagant claims for the scale of Christian numbers. He spoke of “the immense number of Christians … almost all the inhabitants of your various cities being followers of Christ.” His numerical claims for the overall number of Christians are ludicrous, but his statement points to the extreme concentration of Christian numbers in some centers.
Estimating Christian numbers at any point in history (even today) is a difficult task. For the early church, the classic figures come from my Baylor colleague Rodney Stark in his 1996 book The Rise of Christianity. This made an excellent attempt at providing some kind of general parameters. Drawing analogies with modern new religious movements, Stark showed that Christians could have achieved their remarkable growth in the first few centuries by quite familiar forms of growth and conversion, without any claims to miracle or uniqueness. He 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. Also, it is never quite clear whether early estimates for Christians were taking account of the full spectrum of people who would have used that description for themselves, including all “heresies.”
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.
To put that in context, think of a modern grouping like the Baptist General Convention of Texas, with 2.1 million members. That represents a larger share of the contemporary US population than the Christians in 200 did of the whole Roman Empire. Muslims in the US today represent about one percent of the nation’s population, compared to that 0.36 percent for Christians in the Roman world.
Even taking the most optimistic view, Christians at this stage were extremely thinly spread.