The Social Factor: Early Conversion Numbers

How large was the early Christian movement? At what pace did it grow? In this final look into the social climate surrounding the Resurrection and the formation of the Christian faith we’ll see just how incredible the early Christian movement really was.

The aim of our argument thus far has been to establish the way Christianity was seen by the ancients. What is most clear is that, perhaps aside from those who followed Jesus, there is no reason anyone, in any circumstance, will desire to convert to Christianity. It is highly reasonable that even the most loyal followers of Jesus would eventually leave Him behind if it became clear He wasn’t the messiah they were waiting for. Without the Resurrection we wouldn’t be talking about Jesus today. 

Considering the social stigma surrounding Jesus’ ministry the claim of His physical resurrection would have fallen on offended, or at the very least, deaf ears. The thrust of our argument is a simple one: modern critics have the burden of proof to explain how even one member outside the inner circle of disciples would have converted to the new faith aside from Jesus having risen from the dead and appearing to hundreds. From day one of our investigation into the Resurrection of Jesus we have shown how the historical data makes its historicity plainly obvious. And we shall offer one last piece of evidence right here.

How many actually converted to Christianity following Christ’s death? Acts provides the first and earliest conversion numbers.

And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:40-41 ESV bold mine)

And soon after….

But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand. (Acts 4:4 ESV bold mine)

There were around 3000 converts following Peter’s first sermon and soon after an additional 5000 came to believe in the Resurrection and Lordship of Jesus Christ. This may seem like an unbelievable number and critics may have no qualms about telling you so. However, if Luke invented the numbers he could have gone a lot further. Why stop at a few thousand when there were tens of thousands, possibly even a million of people in Jerusalem and Rome for a religious festival? It would have been easy to exaggerate the number of converts yet that is clearly not what happened. 

If Paul, 1 Corinthians 15, stated that Jesus, in His resurrected body, appeared to around 500 people before His ascension, how did Christianity gain so many followers thereafter? What did they use as evidence that Jesus had been resurrected? The evangelical sermons in Acts provide our answer….

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him,

“‘I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
my flesh also will dwell in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One see corruption.
You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

“Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:22-36 ESV bold mine)

The evangelical sermons in Acts pointed to and relied on the evidence for His resurrection. This can be broken down into three categories:

  1. The evidence of the signs and wonders of Jesus and His Holy Spirit
  2. The evidence of the empty tomb
  3. The evidence of the fulfillment of prophecy in Scripture

These three categories of evidence, each having multiple witnesses to attest to, were were the primary points used to convince others to believe.

The first category would be on the miracles of Jesus and would have relied on many of the eye-witnesses of those. Additionally, appeals would have been made to the miracles done by the apostles through the Holy Spirit, and events such as the speaking of tongues in Pentecost and the tearing of the veil in two. (Acts 6:7 refers to the conversion of many of the Jewish priests who would have been witnesses to these events and could provide an authoritative testimony)

The apostles were witnesses to the empty tomb but the enemies of Christianity would have stated the same. Additionally, the guards at the tomb would have been powerful witnesses to the empty tomb, having state authority behind them. (see more on the guards in link 1 below)

The third category would have been what concerned Jews the most. Although appeal to the fulfillment of prophecy was made they were also encouraged to search the Scriptures for themselves. (Acts 17:12)

Conclusion to the Impossible Faith argument

During my investigation into the Resurrection it was this argument, originally formulated by apologist James Patrick Holding, that finally convinced me. (You can find his original article in the link below) Skeptic Richard Carrier has been the only major voice in the New Atheist crowd to address it and his arguments-addressed by Mr. Holding-were terribly flimsy and failed to understand much of what the Impossible Faith thesis argues. It hasn’t been touched since and in my searching of an opposing voice I’ve come out empty handed.

Mainstream arguments for the Resurrection, such as the Minimal Facts approach, while partially useful, can leave much open for the critic to, well, critique. I was one of them. If there was any possibility that the Christian faith could be desirable to those outside the inner circle of disciples then the resurrection didn’t need to be true and if it didn’t need to be true then….why believe it was? However, if it ever became clear that Christianity was not desirable, at least to the ways of its ancient audience, then it would follow that the Resurrection needed to be true, like how the presence of electricity was needed in order for my laptop to function this morning. Without electricity there would be no power and without power I wouldn’t be able to write this post. Likewise, without the Resurrection there would be no Christianity and I mean this in the most literal sense. I am not saying, “without the claim of a resurrection there would be no Christianity.” I am saying that without the Resurrection having actually happened there would be no Christianity. Merely proclaiming it would have been as effective as shouting at my dead laptop.

I believe Christianity is true because Jesus had been resurrected from the dead. I believe in the Resurrection of Jesus because the evidence provides me no other option.

Link to an introduction to The Impossible Faith by J.P. Holding.