Dr. Oakes, I am reading a book for one of my classes called “the rise of Christianity” and the author makes a point that if the early church had well over 3,000 adherents then a significant of the population in Jerusalem would have been Christian. He claims that there is no evidence of this massive population growth and says that the real number is probably around 1,000 by the year 40. His viewpoint suggests that Luke exploded the numbers to make things look like God was powerfully moving in the church. What are your thoughts on this? I have never looked into this and it seems interesting.
We should bear in mind that, as a rule, we know relatively little in detail about the ancient world because the records are scanty or even non-existent. This is especially true when it comes to things like trying to estimate populations and percentages of populations with a particular language, religion or cultural practice. In rare cases, archaeology can help, but generally, this is limited. The fact is that we do not have religious affiliation surveys available from the fifth decade of the first century in Jerusalem. Here are the facts. Christianity began in Jerusalem. By the end of the first century there were churches stretched across the Mediterranean basin, established by the church which began in Jerusalem. Clearly, this group was very influential. The church in Antioch had come to have a similar influence by the end of the first century. There have been estimates of the church in Antioch from several thousand to fifty thousand by the late first century. By the second century, there were areas of northern Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Palestine where Christians were a significant percentage of the entire population. A letter from Pliny the Younger in AD 112 from Bithynia asked what to do with the great number of Christians who were being accused of being Christians. Domitian had formally made being a Christian illegal in the late first century. We do not know how many Christians there were at this time in the Roman empire, but in the hundreds of thousands is a conservative estimate.
As for Jerusalem, our only reliable source is the New Testament writers. Luke reported that three thousand were baptized at Pentecost, and the number of disciples had grown to five thousand just a rather short time later–possibly within months, probably in less than two years (Acts 4:4). Unless the author has evidence that Luke is lying, then we should take his claim at face value. Let us accept that we do not have evidence of a large Christian population in AD 40. Do we have evidence that there was NOT a large Christian population in AD 40? I say that we DO have evidence that there was a large Christian population in Jerusalem. The evidence is the statement of Luke. Why is it that skeptics will accept the evidence of the word of anyone else, no matter how low the character, but when it comes to a Christian, who we know generally were of the highest character, they automatically reject such information as useless? This is clear evidence of bias. The level of bias is particularly notable when it comes to Luke who was a very careful historian, as I will show below.
Another historical factor needs to be weighed. This is the report from Luke himself that there was a massive persecution of the church some time before AD 40. According to Luke, virtually the entire church fled Jerusalem. We are not told how many remained, but we can assume that of the well over five thousand, a small percentage remained. Perhaps it was less than one thousand. What we do know from Luke is that the church was of a fairly significant size by the sixth and seventh decade of the first century because he came with Paul to deliver help to the church, as reported in Acts 15 and Acts 21. Probably the church in Jerusalem was back well over one thousand, and perhaps several thousand by AD 60, but we simply do not know as Luke gives us no numbers.
Let me finish with two points. First of all, given that Luke himself said that the church was scattered from Jerusalem in about AD 37, this author’s claim that the church may have been as small as 1000 in AD 40 does not even contradict the biblical statements. This shows me that the author with this criticism is probably not even aware of the historical record in Acts. This makes me very skeptical of his reliability on this question.
Second, the fact is that Luke is a historian of fantastic accuracy. He records dozens of locations, dozens of names, the titles of political leaders and a whole range of precise information. In no case has Luke ever been shown to be inaccurate. His record of a man named Sergius Paulus in Crete in Acts 13 has been confirmed by an inscription. His mention of Gallio in Corinth in Acts 18 has been confirmed by inscription. His use of the name politarchs (a very obscure title) for the rulers of Thessalonica in Acts 17 has been confirmed by inscription. Other examples can be mentioned. Here is a statement from the eminent historian William Ramsay, who started as a skeptic with regard to the reliability of Luke as an historian, before he began his archaeological investigations:
” I found myself brought into contact with the Book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth. In fact, beginning with a fixed idea that the work was essentially a second century composition, and never relying on its evidence as trustworthy for first century conditions, I gradually came to find it a useful ally in some obscure and difficult investigations. Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy; he is possessed of the true historic sense; he fixes his mind on the idea and plan that rules in the evolution of history, and proportions the scale of his treatment to the importance of each incident. He seizes the important and critical events and shows their true nature at greater length, while he touches lightly or omits entirely much that was valueless for his purpose. In short, this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.” Sir William Ramsay, St. Paul, the Traveler and the Roman Citizen, (Hodder and Stoughton, 1920).
So we have the testimony of Sir William Ramsay and the testimony of this skeptic author. Personally, I believe Ramsay and I believe that Luke did not grossly exaggerate. To accuse him of gross exaggeration, you would think that this author would have a single piece of evidence, but apparently he has none. All he has is an opinion about the population in AD 40 without any evidence to support that opinion, and the opinion just so happens to not even conflict with Luke. Yet he accuses Luke of exploding the numbers!
We should be cautious and admit that the evidence outside the Bible for the numbers of Christians in the first century is scanty. It is possible that Luke exaggerated. However, given the evidence on balance, it is more likely that he gave sober and conservative estimates. It is apparent that the author you read has an ax to grind. You should take what he said with a big grain of salt.