The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Curvy History

March 4th, 2008 · No Comments · christianity, history, media

The Rodney Stark book had a set of maps that easily decomposed into a chart of data that I have proudly appropriated as the basis for a much larger database. Admittedly, it was in the search for much of this data that I discovered Stark’s book, so he saved me a lot of time. I like the idea of using mathematical models to deduce information and to verify hypotheses, but there are obviously a lot of limitations to how far it can be used, as Stark’s book so clearly demonstrated.

An early example in the book has Stark showing a how a simple growth curve can easily explain the missionary successes of early Christianity, no miracles needed. He starts with 1000 Christians in 40 AD and proceeds at the aggressive, but not entirely unreasonable, rate of 3.4% until 350, when Christians number more than half the Imperial population. Stark points out that his starting number and growth rates are estimated, yet the resulting projections are in line with contemporary estimates of Christian population.

Obviously, it’s not a sustainable rate forever, and other demographics are going to further limit the reach and recruiting pool and time progresses. Marching along geometrically, there should be twice as many Christians in the empire than actually alive by 390, but that’s because the mathematical value had surpassed the real population after 368, so clearly the growth rate must fall to near zero at some point.

The growth rate itself is pretty important: once you pick one to explain some action, you pretty much have to stick with it or have some really good reasons why it would change from one period to the next. A particularly charismatic individual may induce a larger growth rate for his cause during his lifetime than after, or the presence of specific populations of competitive culture groups would curtail the rate once the recruiting pool had diminished. In either case, the raw projection here appears to confirm the roots of the Jesus Movement extend back to at least 100BC.

Because of the exponential nature of growth curves, there doesn’t seem to be much action for a long time and then they explode into action: over 400 years to grow to 10% of the population, but then less than 50 years to possibly build to half! Looking backwards, one has to assume a meteoric growth rate to have gone from 13 people to 1000 in five or six years — yet following this with an inexplicable shift to a comparatively anemic 3.4% would then seem most unreasonable.

Assuming that 1000 Christians in 40AD is not an unreasonable figure (and there are reasons to believe that it is an extremely conservative figure), a Jesus figure able to create a core group of a hundred disciples would have had to have peaked in 30BC in order for there to have been 1000 of them by 40AD. On the other hand, presuming that the same general rate was kept for some time, it would have been a group of 30 people in 65BC, or 13 people in 90BC or maybe just 3 people in 134BC who would have been the original core group of “Christians”.

On the other end of the scale, it does seem inevitable that any organization that can maintain a 3.4% growth rate from century to century will eventually come to dominate its host culture(s). Like a perverse version of a child’s party game, Constantine may have become the “Christian” emperor because he just happened to be in the right chair at the right time.

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