Notes on Early Christian Churches

Related posts:

From Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & New Testament by Philip W. Comfort (see Annotated Bibliography on New Testament Text and Canon).

By the end of the second century, there was a church in almost every major city [in the Greco-Roman world].  [Kindle location 1353]

There were, of course, other churches in villages and the countryside. But these city churches totaled forty-three in the first century and another fifty-four in the second. Roughly, one hundred local churches were in existence by the year 200.  [Kindle location 1369]

From Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World by Larry W. Hurtado, Baylor University Press, 2016, page 3.  In his footnote, Hurtado cites as his source Keith Hopkins in “Christian Number and Its Implications (Journal of Early Christian Studies, 1998) for this information.  He also cites two additional sources for this kind of information.

One recent estimate of the number of sites where there were bodies or “communities” of Christians posits a hundred or so (many of these comprising several house-based groups) by 100 AD and two hundred to four hundred sites by 200 AD.

Notes on Population in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity

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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

Conclusions About Historical Accuracy of the Bible by Glenn Smith

This post is mainly about the historical reliability of Luke-Acts.


– The best evidence shows that Luke and Acts were composed by 60 A.D.

– Luke and Acts are so well attested historically and archaeologically that they have more support than any other book in ancient history.

– There is no reasonable way that Luke/Acts could have been written by anyone other than someone living in the region in the first century.

(4 min read; 1,021 words)

Conclusions About Historical Accuracy of the Bible | Thomistic Bent
HT: Greg West at The Poached Egg from Ratio Christi)

Early Christians Honored Marriage | Michael J. Kruger

New Testament scholar Michael J. Kruger shows how sexual ethics clearly distinguished early Christians from the broader society.  Good thing they didn’t compromise sexual purity in order to advance the movement.

(3 min read; 787 words)

One Trait that Set Apart the Earliest Christians | TGC | The Gospel Coalition.
(HT: Greg West of The Poached Egg from Ratio Christi)


Mike Licona’s Research on Plutarch’s Lives Relative to the Gospels

On July 12, 2014, Nick Peters interviewed Mike Licona about research on Plutarch’s Lives (links below).

Some data points mentioned by Licona beginning about the 30:00 mark:

– Licona wanted to research ancient biographies written 150-200 years either side of Christ for comparison purposes.

– He made a list of these, identifying about 80-90 of them.

– Of these, Plutarch wrote about 60 of them, 50 of which are extant.

– Of these 50, Licona has identified 9 that involve contemporaries which would give rise to multiple accounts of the same events.

– In these, Licona has identified 42 stories that appear 2 or more times in these 9 biographies.

– Of these 42 stories, he has studied 32 of them so far.  He’s found lots of differences in the stories and has been able to see 5 distinct types of differences, leading him to conclude that there are “compositional devices” that account for the differences.

– In the Gospels, Licona has identified 50 pages of differences between them which he now sees as perhaps being explained to a signficant degree by these very compositional devices.

– Here are the 5 literary devices used by Plutarch, as identified by Licona.  First, he gives an example of how Plutarch uses each device and then he gives at least one example of how he sees the device being used in the Gospels.

— Compression (about 56:00)
— Displacement (about 1:07:00)
— Spotlighting (1:15:30)  –  most frequent of the five
— Transferral (1:26:50)
— Simplification (1:32:30)

– Licona has spent the last six years working on this project.  He plans to spend the rest of this year completing his analysis of the remaining 10 stories (33 to 42).  Then the next year writing a book on the subject, which he expects to be published in November 2016.

– Licona refers to ancient Greco-Roman biographies as writings intended to illuminate the character of the subject.  (I think he was quoting Plutarch on this point.).  History is for reporting events, but biography is selective regarding events in order to convey the character of the subject.

Here are some miscellaneous notes I made on the recording:

– Michael Licona is 53 years old and is Nick Peter’s father-in-law.  Mike has been a Christian since age 10.

– Licona covers the difference between Acts 9, 22, and 26 accounts of Paul’s conversion in his big book on the resurrection of Christ.

– In the 1st Century, a single scroll had a maximum limit of 25,000 words.  Luke’s is the longest Gospel and comes in just below that at about 24,000 words.  Is this why the Luke 24 account of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances is compressed when compared to what Luke wrote about them in Acts 1?

– Licona has spent the last three years reading the Gospels (especially the synoptics) almost exclusively in Greek.

– Licona has ADD and an average IQ.  He has worked extra hard to achieve his academic status.

(Deeper Waters Podcast Schedule:  Mike Licona Interview:  Plutarch research and its impact on the Gospels)

Ancient and Modern Historiography: What Are The Gospels? | THINKAPOLOGETICS.COM

I think the writer here is Eric Chabot.  In any case, he is focused on the genre of the gospels.  In the conclusion, he writes:

It is my hope that more people will take the time to look at the genre of the books of the Bible and actually attempt to know what it is they are trying to interpret. While this may be a challenge for some people, it can be an incredibly rewarding experience.

The post is replete with facts and sources relevant to understaning the genre (literary framework) through which the gospel writers deliver their message.

Although there are many portions of this post that are worthy of excerpting, here is one that is particularly pithy [emphasis added]:

Michael Bird has recently noted that the content of the Gospels is singularly determined by Jewish Christian content, while the literary form of the Gospels is a clear sub-type of Graeco-Roman biography.

(8 min read; 2,020 words)

Ancient and Modern Historiography: What Are The Gospels? | THINKAPOLOGETICS.COM.

“The Early Text of the New Testament” is Now in Paperback – Michael Kruger

Michael J. Kruger announces on his blog the availability of the paperback edition of this book ($45) for those who thought that the hardback edition ($175) was too expensive.  I think there is a Kindle version for $99 as well.)

Kruger edited this book along with Charles E. Hill, professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.

“The Early Text of the New Testament” is Now in Paperback | Canon Fodder.

Are There Other Resurrection Myths? – William Lane Craig

One of today’s urban myths is that antiquity is filled with myths of dying and rising gods of which Christianity was just a copy-cat formulation.  In less than two minutes, Christian philosopher William Lane Craig sets the record straight.

Are There Other Resurrection Myths? – YouTube.

(ht: Stephen J. Bedard at Hope’s Reason)

Early Church Growth – Justin Taylor

Justin Taylor reports:

Robert Louis Wilken, emeritus professor of history at the University of Virginia:

At the end of the first century there were fewer than ten thousand Christians in the Roman Empire. The population at the time numbered some sixty million, which meant that Christians made up one hundredth of one percent or 0.0017 percent according to the figures of a contemporary sociologist.

Of course, such numbers are estimates and must be taken with a grain of salt.  That said, they do bring Jesus’ words from Luke 12:32 to mind and remind us as well of the time of Gideon when God said to decrease – rather than increase – the number of warriors to be deployed for battle (see Judges 7, where God reduced Gideon’s army from 32,000 to 300).  As God said through Jonathan, “The Lord is not restrained to save by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6).

For the rest of this post from Justin Taylor, see Early Church Growth – Justin Taylor.

F.F. Bruce on Porneia in the Greco-Roman World (Gupta) | Crux Sola

In a brief excerpt from his commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians, F. F. Bruce explains why the apostles had to teach sexual purity – things we would have considered obvious – through the Mediterranean world.  (1 min read)

via F.F. Bruce on Porneia in the Greco-Roman World (Gupta) | Crux Sola.