The Number of Christians Through HistoryGeneral Information
The following tabular view of the Christian population of the world from the beginning has been attributed to Sharon Turner, English historian, apparently around 1810. The nineteenth century estimate is certainly too low, and does not appear to have possibly been provided by Ms. Turner.
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Many people seem to make many wild assumptions regarding how much knowledge and how much documentation existed in early human history! Prior to even 1800 AD, only an extremely small fraction of people knew how to read or write, likely around one percent of the total population at most. And those people were generally only taught to be literate for specific purposes of a Government or a Church.
One interesting consequence of this is the usual assumption that EVERYONE read their own Bible at home, was essentially unrealistic and impossible! People certainly could MEMORIZE words that a Priest told them in Church, and then even be able to repeat those words to younger generations by Oral Tradition.
Prior to the invention of the printing press around 1454 AD by Gutenberg, Scribes had to hand copy every individual character of every word of every page, an immensely time consuming and difficult activity. The central consequence of this was that VERY FEW COPIES of any written documents ever existed (prior to around 1460 AD). Those copies were nearly all kept by governments and Churches, and virtually no individuals ever even owned a single book (even the Bible!)
By the way, Illuminated Manuscripts of the Bible were created during the Middle ages, where artists drew pictures that showed the events of Bible texts. Since virtually no one who would attend a Church could ever have read the words of a Bible, such Illuminated Bibles such as Kells quickly became very popular. They were very difficult and time consuming to create, so rather few of them were ever created. However, Churches learned from that to do as many things in visual terms as possible, such as stained glass windows in the Churches, and sets of paintings such as the set of 14 paintings presenting the Stations of the Cross, which soon were created for nearly all Churches to display.
Getting back to the numbers of Christians in the very early Church, we must note that the Roman Empire spent nearly three hundred years in aggressively trying to exterminate all Christians. The Roman Emperors were fearful that such a religion might threaten their authority over much of the known world, and their solution was to entirely eliminate any documents, references and people associated with Christian beliefs. They were quite effect in this effort, in exterminating enormous numbers of people who had any connection with Christianity.
A primary result of this was that Christians quickly learned that it was a terrible idea for large numbers of Christians to ever meet! Such meetings would always attract Roman soldiers and all the Christians would be executed. We modern Christians imagine that there were many huge Christian Churches, such as some that are mentioned in the New Testament. But think about it. IF there was a huge Church in Corinth where hundreds or thousands of Christians would meet each Sunday to attend Services, that would have been (and was) an extremely convenient way for Roman soldiers to collect and exterminate large numbers of Christians all at the same place at the same time.
Christians sooned learned that it was a terrible idea for ANY large numbers of them to ever meet except in total secret. And even then, there were often spies for the Romans where the entire group of Christians were still exterminated.
The point here is that the modern approach to doing census taking to count up large numbers of people were simply not realistic regarding Christians in those first few Centuries.
Until the Roman Empire became converted to Christianity around 312 AD, there was tremendous danger if even groups of five Christians would meet, unless they were all certain that they were trusted friends, or else they all might soon be executed.
In addition, if Roman soldiers discovered ANY evidence that any person might have even associated with Christians, that person was likely to be imprisoned and probably killed. So virtually no Christian would dare ever even carry any icon that suggested Christianity, and whether they were capable of reading it or not, no one would dare even possess any scroll or manuscript which refered in any way to Christianity.
The result of all this is that there was no possible way that anyone could have accurately known how many Christians there were during the first three Centuries. Once the Roman Empire adopted Christianity, then the organization and bureaucracy of the Roman Empire was used to collect and save many Christian documents. This resulted in a sudden tremendous increase in the number of Christian documents beginning around 317 AD. At least 9,000 separate manuscripts are now known from the Early Christian Church, but only a few dozen of those are known to be from earlier than 317 AD.
There have been a number of authors who have published recent books about the number of early Christians. Unfortunately, for the reasons described above, none of those modern authors had any significant accurate information available upon to build estimates. So those authors have tended to speculate widely differing numbers, none of which probably had any better or worse value than the others.
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