Notes on Population in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity

Related posts:

The Population of Jerusalem in the 1st Century A.D.

Joachim Jeremias (1900-1979) said that he thought the population of 1st-century Jerusalem was “around 25,000 to 30,000 inhabitants; 20,000 within the walls, 5,000 to 10,000 living outside.”  (Source:  Stanley E. Porter in the first lecture of the 2014 H. Orton Wiley Lecture Series in Theology at Point Loma Nazarene University, at about 19:00)

Martin Hengel (1926-2009) traces the growth in Jerusalem’s population from 32,000 to around 80,000 (in the 1st Century) with probably around 70,000 being there around 30 A.D.  (Source:  Stanley E. Porter in the first lecture of the 2014 H. Orton Wiley Lecture Series in Theology at Point Loma Nazarene University, at about 19:00)

Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard in Killing Jesus (p. 11) describe Jerusalem around the time of Jesus’ birth as a “walled city of some eighty thousand residents packed into less than a single square mile.”  They also say (p. 19) that the Passover feast would bring with it “tens of thousands of Hebrew pilgrims.”  Later on in the book (p. 191), they say “hundreds of thousands,” but I don’t know how to account for this apparent discrepancy.

Philip W. Comfort in Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & New Testament (Kindle loc 1294) says, “Estimates of Jerusalem’s population at this time [i.e. mid-50’s] range from twenty-five thousand to eighty-five thousand.”

The Number of Priests at the End of the 1st Century A.D.

In The New Testament and the People of God (p. 209), its author N. T. Wright says, “Josephus, writing at the end of the first century AD, says that there were at least twenty thousand priests, far more than the figures given for the party of the Pharisees (6,000) or the sect of the Essenes (4,000).”  In a footnote, Wright says that the number from the priests comes from Against Apion 2:108 in which Josephus says “that there were four priestly clans, each with ‘more than five thousand’ members.”

The Number of Pharisees in the 1st Century A.D.

Josephus seems to indicate that the number of Pharisees in all of Palestine was probably only about 6,000 around 30 A.D. Not all would have been in Jerusalem.  (Source:  Stanley E. Porter in the first lecture of the 2014 H. Orton Wiley Lecture Series in Theology at Point Loma Nazarene University, at about 19:00)

In Killing Jesus (p. 143) Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard say “The Pharisees number some six thousand members throughout all of Judea.”

See note from N. T. Wright in the section on Jerusalem above.

Philip W. Comfort (Encountering the Manuscripts, see above for more) writes “Josephus recorded that there were a total of six thousand Pharisees in Palestine.”

The Number of Synagogues in the Time of Jesus

In Killing Jesus (p. 130), Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard say that there were more than four hundred synagogues in Jerusalem during the early first century A.D.

The Number of Christians in the Early Centuries

Philip W. Comfort (Encountering the Manuscripts, see above for more) estimates the number of Christians in Jerusalem during the middle of the first century to be about five thousand.

“According to the World Christian Encyclopedia (1982), it is estimated that by A.D. 100 there were 1 million Christians in the Roman Empire out of a population of 181 million. This means that by the end of the first century less than 1 percent of the population (0.6% to be exact) was Christian.”  Andrews University: Personal pages of Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D.  (Source: Google Answers)

“Christianity began in Jerusalem when disciples of Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed that he was the expected Messiah. The movement spread slowly) while Jesus was alive, but after Jesus’ death it spread more rapidly. The diffusion was greatly assisted by Christian preachers and missionaries. It spread first to Samaria (in northern ancient Palestine), then to Phoenicia to the north-west, and south to Gaza and Egypt. Afterwards it was adopted in the Syrian cities of Antioch and Damascus, then subsequently in Cyprus, modern Turkey, modern Greece, Malta and Rome. It spread fast, and numbers quickly grew. Within the first century there were an estimated million Christians, comprising less than one per cent of the total world population.”  Lancaster University: Personal pages of Chris Park  (Source: Google Answers)

“Determination of the place, size, growth rate, commitment, and faction of early Christian communities remains problematic if not impossible… Such estimates involve a certain degree of speculation and lack of precision. Moreover, in an overall population sense the
term “Christians” refers to its membership in an all-inclusive way.  The deeply committed or observant probably would have been significantly less. Perhaps at most no more than 10% of the total were actually practicing Christians. At best, based upon today?s knowledge, developing reasonable projections of Christian population growth are not plausible beyond the dyad of Christians of Jewish stock and Christians of Gentile stock. Developing these projections, however, has some probative value in considering the matter of the Greco-Roman Gentile Church overtaking and eventually overwhelming
Judeo-Christianity.”  BibArch: Estimates for Late Roman Period  (Source: Google Answers)

“While this excerpt from a letter of Pliny the Younger does not provide actual figures, it does indicate that, only eighty years after the crucifixion of Christ, Christianity had spread to the point that it was causing a notable stir in the Roman Empire:

Pliny the Younger, governor of the Roman province of Bithynia (on the north coast of modern Turkey), wrote to emperor Trajan (r. 98–117) about a.d. 110, a mere eighty years or so after the crucifixion of Jesus, describing the official trials he was conducting to find and execute Christians:

The matter seems to me worthy of your consultation, especially on account of the numbers of defendants. For many of every age, of every social class, even of both sexes, are being called to trial and will be called. Nor cities alone, but villages and even rural areas have been invaded by the infection of this superstition.  (Epistulae 10.96, gjr)

Pliny was in a rather distant and out-of-the-way province, and he shows us that just a few generations after its beginning, Christianity had ‘invaded’ every level of society. Another ninety years later, around a.d. 200, Tertullian, a Roman lawyer turned Christian, in his
defiant open letter to the Roman magistrates defending Christianity against persecution, could boast proudly that ‘nearly all the citizens of all the cities are Christians’ (Apologeticus 37.8, gjr).

This last statement, we suspect, is something of an exaggeration made for rhetorical effect, but both authors agree on at least two matters: the number of Christians was considerable, even alarming.” One Jesus, Many Christs (excerpt)

By the middle of the 1st Century A.D. (i.e. the time of Paul writing his letters and traveling the Mediterranean) the estimates are two to three thousand Christians in the known world.  By the end of the first century there are about 50,000 Christians, most comprised of slaves and women.  The Christian population explodes in the Constantinian era (i.e. the fourth century): something like 30 million Christians in the world.  (All this per Matt Hauge, PhD, of Azusa Pacific University, in “The Beginning of the Production of Christian Bibles,” episode of Bible Study and the Christian Life podcast, beginning about 14:30Editorial note as of June 29, 2016, it appears that the page to which this links is no longer being hosted so I have had to disable the link.  Sorry.)

“If we accept 60 million as the total population [of the Roman Empire at that time]…the actual number of Christians in the year 300 lay within the range of 5-7.5 million…”  (Source: Stark, The Rise of Christianity, p. 6)

Bart Ehrman says, “There were probably about 60 million inhabitants in the Roman Empire, give or take, throughout the first four centuries CE…”  He accepts 3 million as an appropriate count of Roman Empire Christians in 312 (the time of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity), and 30 million (half the Roman Empire’s total population) by the end of the fourth century.  He also cites as sources Ramsey MacMullen and, less enthusiastically, Rodney Stark.   Source:  “Notes on Growth Rate of Early Christianity” (Ehrman’s blog)

Justin Taylor quotes Robert Louis Wilken as pegging the number of Christians by 100 AD at 10,000; by 200 AD at 200,000; by 250 AD at 1 million; and by 300 AD at 6 million with a steep rise after that (following the conversion of Constantine).  Source:  “Early Church Growth” – Justin Taylor (this blog); “Early Church Growth” (Taylor’s blog)

Larry Hurtado says, “To take a set of estimates now often cited by scholars, there may have been about one thousand Christians in 40 AD, about seven to ten thousand by 100 AD, about two hundred thousand or a bit more by 200 AD, and by 300 AD perhaps five to six million.”  In his footnote, Hurtado gives as examples of such scholars Rodney Stark in The Rise of Christianity, which is cited above, and Keith Hopkins in “Christian Number and Its Implications (Journal of Early Christian Studies, 1998).  He also says “In the early third century, the Christian writer Tertullian claimed that Christians were numerous, ‘all but he majority in every city’ (Tertullian, To Scapula 2).  He may well have been exaggerating, but behind the rhetoric there seems to have been sustance: Christianity had grown remarkably and continued to grow in that period.”  (Source: Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World by Larry W. Hurtado, Baylor University Press, 2016, pages 3-4.)

The Number of Jews in the Roman Empire in the 1st Century A. D.

“If at best the Christian movement contained only 1,000 members of Jewish origin at any point in time, then this represented a mere 0.0166 per cent of the total Jewish population in antiquity, working on the accepted figure of six million Jews (or 10 per cent of the ancient world) in the first century (McKnight 1993:11).”  (Source:  “How many Jews became Christians in the first century?  The failure of the Christian mission to the Jews,” a paper by David C. Sim)

The Number of Jews in Rome in the 1st Century A.D.

“We…know…that there was a large Jewish community in Rome in the first century (estimated at between 40.000 and 50,000)…Furthermore, we have the interesting information that many Jews were expelled from Rome in (probably) 49 because of disturbances “instigated by Chrestus” (Suetonius Claudius 25.4), where “Chrestus” is almost universally taken as a reference to Christ.”  (Source:  J.D.G. Dunn in his article “Letter to the Romans” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (1993, The IVP Bible Dictionary Series) (p. 838). Intervarsity Press – A. Kindle Edition.)

The Population of Antioch

…in the 2nd Century A. D.

“When we think of the great cities of antiquity, perhaps names such as Rome, Athens, or Alexandria come to mind more quickly than Antioch. But Antioch surely deserves to be named among the foremost cities of the ancient world . The Jewish historian Josephus claimed that after Rome and Alexandria, ‘without dispute [Antioch] deserves the place of the third city in the habitable earth that was under the Roman Empire, both in magnitude and other marks of prosperity.’ [Josephus, The Wars of the Jews 3.2.4]  Antioch was founded as a Greek city in 300 BC in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests. In Ignatius’s era, four hundred years later, it was the capital of the Roman province of Syria, with about half a million residents.”  (Litfin 2007, Getting to Know the Church Fathers, Kindle location 454 of 4981)

…in the 4th Century A.D.

“According to Chrysostom, the Christian population of Antioch in his day (380) was about 100,000, or one-half of the whole.”  (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Kindle location 12431 of 90898)

Life Expectancy

In Killing Jesus (p. 3) Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard state that “Life expectancy was less than forty years” in the Roman Empire during the time of Jesus.

Related post:  Early Church Growth – Justin Taylor


Litfin, Bryan M.  Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction.  Brazos Press (Baker), 2007, Kindle edition.

Schaff, Philip.  History of the Christian Church.  1858, Kindle edition.

Stark, Rodney, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, HarperSanFrancisco, 1997.

__________.  The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion.  HarperOne, 2011, Kindle edition.

See also Annotated Bibliography on New Testament Text and Canon

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