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“Who Were the First Christians?”

March 20, 2017

A new book by Thomas A. Robinson, Who Were the First Christians?  Dismantling the Urban Thesis (Oxford University Press, 2017) takes a virtual wrecking ball to the theories of a number of prominent scholars in early Christianity.  (The publisher’s online catalogue here.)

His most direct and effective critique goes at the numbers and accompanying assumptions widely touted about the growth of early Christianity.  Asking whether historians can count, Robinson shows that the numbers often invoked just don’t add up.  Many scholars posit that by 300 CE Christians made up ca. 10% of the population of the Roman Empire, and that somewhere between 5% and 15% of the population lived in urban settings, and that Christianity was almost entirely an urban religion.  But, as Robinson cleverly notes, putting these figures together would require that by 300 CE the population of urban centres of the Empire would have been totally Christian, something that no historian would hold.

So, something has to give.  Either there were far fewer Christians than typically imagined, or there were many more Christians beyond the urban centres than typically imagined.  Robinson then argues over several chapters for the latter view.  Drawing upon an impressive body of scholarly work, he seems to me to make a rather persuasive case.

One important point made is that there were strong links between urbanized and rural areas.  People from rural areas moved to cities, but likely retained links with relatives and friends in the countryside.  Cities and rural areas operated in a symbiotic relationship.  Indeed, it is not always possible to say where ancient cities ended and the countryside began.

Historians often grant that Christianity began to have a rural impact as early as 250 CE.  But,  extending his survey across a wide expanse, both eastern and western areas of the Empire included, Robinson also draws upon indications in early Christian sources that there were rural Christians from a far earlier point.

In two appendices, Robinson tackles the theories of two figures who loom large in today’s study of early Christianity, Ramsay MacMullen and Rodney Stark, and mounts an effective critique of both.  He posits problems in method in MacMullen’s thesis of two early Christianities.  But his sharpest criticism is directed at Rodney Stark’s use of dubious numbers to support his thesis that factors specific to the ancient urban centres were crucial in the growth of early Christianity.  I found it hard to avoid wincing at points where Robinson skewers Stark for failures in method.

As should be obvious, this book is primarily a work of criticism, intended to signal the need to re-think a lot about early Christianity.  Robinson candidly admits that this re-thinking lies ahead, and that his book is essentially a clarion call for it.  But the implications are far-reaching.

For if the thesis is incorrect that early Christianity had success pretty much solely in urban settings in the first two or three centuries, then that calls into question the putative reasons for its growth that follow from that “urban thesis.”

Moreover, Robinson challenges some now-popular notions about the social levels of early Christians (e.g., W. A. Meeks), contending that the evidence suggests a larger place must be given to Christians of lower social and economic levels.  This, too, might well have effects on theories about what it was about early Christianity that appealed to people.

I commend this book to all students of early Christianity.  It should start the ball rolling on a prolonged and far-reaching re-examination of who the first Christians were and why early Christianity developed so remarkably.

(Robinson has made a career of challenging widely-held theories effectively.  His published PhD thesis, The Bauer Thesis Examined: The Geography of Heresy in the Early Christian Church [Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1988], was a powerful refutation of Walter Bauer’s theory that “heresy” preceded “orthodox” Christianity in several areas of the Roman Empire.  Robinson’s book, Ignatius of Antioch and the Parting of the Ways:  Early Jewish-Christian Relations [Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson; Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2009], offered an incisive reading of evidence of an early emergence of “Christianity” in distinction from “Judaism”.  I confess a certain pride in his accomplishments, as Robinson was one of my masters degree students from many years ago.)

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9 Comments
  1. Robert permalink

    A few more basic question for either Larry or Tom, if I may. How do historians estimate the number of Christians in the first couple of centuries? How reliable are these estimates? Is there general agreement about this among historians? Some seem to start at only a handful of the disciples after the crucifixion, but I wonder if we can rule out the possibility that some villages were already following a basic Jesus halakah prior to the crucifixion, which may have allowed the reports of the resurrection to take seed among separate groups from the very beginning. Thoughts?

    • Robert: As Robinson notes in his recent book, historians work entirely with estimates, as there are scant hard data. Your suggestion that there may have been a wider following of Jesus than some presume is a good one that deserves more thought.

  2. Somewhat up the alley of your last few posts: I would love to see a work that analyzes appropriation of Jewish texts in early Gentile writers. It would really help round out the New Perspective on Paul to know how exactly the Jewish story might have been lost on the early Gentile believers.

    • REad Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. It shows this Gentile writer avidly using OT texts to defend his christoloical beliefs.

  3. Dr Hurtado,

    Sounds very interesting. Is the impression of early Christianity as an urban-centered phenomenon derived from the impression left by Acts? Paul seemed to move from one urban setting to another and address his letters to urban congregations. Also certain named converts/characters seemed to be urban and prosperous – e.g. Lydia of Thyatira.

    • Yes, both Acts and Paul’s letters (and also Revelation’s letters to seven churches in as many cities) shows a strong linkage of early Christianity to cities. But the question is whether at the same time it was also making converts in rural areas.

    • I attempt to show (pp. 91-100) reasons for not taking Paul’s supposedly urban character of mission as in any way helpful for understanding early Christian expansion or focus. Even Paul, when speaking of his mission, regularly refers to regions rather than cities. Further, even if Paul’s focus was on cities, why give status to that when the authors of the gospels, writing decades after Paul, speak many times of the Christian mission going to towns and villages? Although it is Jesus whose mission is so described, such explicit reference to towns and villages would have had some impact on readers to consider a similar scope to the church’s mission in their own times.

      • Professor Robinson,
        Thank you for your comment. Yes, I see your point. I recollect that Pliny the Younger in his letter to Trajan mentions that ‘… for this superstition is spread like a contagion, not only into cities and towns, but into country villages also..’ I look forward to reading your book.

  4. Great stuff.

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