Historian Adam Schor dives into Christianity's early days

Historians in the News

Da Vinci Code fans may thrill to dark conspiracies surrounding the secret history of early Christianity, but how many know about the real scholarly debate surrounding the young church? Even without a sleuthing Harvard "symboligist" involved, scholars have found plenty of intrigue in how early Christianity grew.

"How did the Mediterranean world become predominantly Christian?" asks historian Adam Schor of Long Island University, in Brookville, N.Y., in the current Journal of Religious History. "Generations of scholars have approached it, but each new theoretical angle seems to reopen basic questions."

Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, of course, after the death of Jesus around 33 AD, moving from a persecuted minority in the time of the Roman emperor Nero in 64 AD (blamed for Rome's most famous fire), to state religion with the Emperor Constantine's victory in 312 AD. But how — and how much — the early church grew in that time-frame remains a mystery, Schor notes, one that scholars have solved in widely divergent ways, starting in 1997 with sociologist Rodney Stark's book, The Rise of Christianity, with similarly conflicted answers.

"Appearances have deceived us here in many ways," Schor writes, looking at the various approaches since then that try to explain the growth in the Christian population. "Without concrete data, none (of the approches) truly counts early Christians." But, he suggests, each one may tell us something interesting. Past attempts include:

• The "mission" model, where "the rate of conversion (to Christianity) depends on the number of leading clerics and holy people," yielding a slowly accelerating curve of growth for the early church. The only problem is that by changing just a few numbers, say how many people your typical holy person converts every year, estimates will range for the early church having anywhere from 5.47 million to 15.8 million people by 350 A.D. (where the total population is no higher than 50 million.)

• The "values" model, where Christians taking to heart the advice to "be fruitful and multiply"led to exponential growth. Roman practices meanwhile, including infanticide, kept pagan population low. As well, Schor says, "values could influence conversion. Early Christians may have been vilified, but their values won admiration, even from some persecutors." In this model, early Christian numbers grow like microbes in a Petri dish, bringing about an even bigger range than the first model — from 3.5 to 34 million by 350 AD, depending on conversion rates...

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