Posted by: aboutalbion | October 5, 2012

Numerical model of early church growth

In a previous post, I have mentioned my historical interest in papyrus 46, one of the earliest Christian documents of any size.

I shall want to refer to as many studies of Christian origins as possible as my interest develops.  And I want to start with the sociologist Rodney Stark.  His book on the topic opens with these arresting sentences.

“Finally, all questions concerning the rise of Christianity are one: How was it done?  How did a tiny and obscure messianic movement from the edge of the Roman Empire dislodge a classical paganism and become the dominant faith of Western civilization?” (p3)

He opens his account with a consideration of numbers.  He assumes that there were 1000 Christians in 40CE. And using data from many authoritative sources, he assumes that there were between 5 and 7.5 million Christians in 300CE (out of a total population of 60 million in the Roman Empire).  He then proceeds to deduce that this growth is consistent with an average growth rate of 40% per decade.

As a sociologist, what interests Stark about this is that this growth rate is almost the same as the growth rate of 43% which the Mormon church has exhibited over the past century.  In other words, on the assumption that humans in large groups behave in the same way, Stark suggests that the 20th century growth of the Mormon church can be used to model possible ways in which the early church grew.

The reason that Stark opens his account with numbers is that Christian sacred texts include references to numbers.  Stark’s argument is that these numbers cannot be used for historical purposes.  He evidences a 1984 “Toronto magazine [that] claimed that there were 10,000 Hare Krishna members in that city.  But when Irving Hexham, Raymond F Carrie, and Joan B Townsend … checked on the matter, they found that the correct total was 80”. (p5)

Stark wishes to conclude in this way.  “Indeed, as Robert M Grant pointed out [in 1977], ‘one must always remember that figures in antiquity … were part of rhetorical exercises’ and were not meant to be taken literally.” (p5)

[Stark, Rodney (1997) The Rise of Christianity.  New York: HarperOne.]


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