Judaism is the oldest of the Big 3 Abrahamic religions: the other two being Christianity and Islam. One might naturally assume then that since the Jewish population has had the most time to grow, it should be the largest. Well, one might be completely wrong…
There are around 15 million Jews alive today. That’s right — 15 million. You read that correctly. Compare this number with the 2.3 billion Christians and 1.8 billion Muslims across the globe and you can’t help but wonder: what’s with this great disparity, especially given that Judaism (allegedly) came first?
Even with their head start, it wouldn’t be shocking to me if Jews trailed Christians and Muslims by a hundred — even several hundred million. There are just so many variables that come into play when it comes to population growth and the popularity of a religion. But lagging behind by BILLIONS?
That just seems insane.
Pondering why this could be something just didn’t add up. And so, I did what any curious soul does nowadays: I sought answers from the internet.
Surprisingly, there isn’t much out there specifically about this subject (at least not in the first few pages of Google). But what there is suggests that 5 major factors contributed to the huge difference in present-day numbers between Jews and Christians/Muslims.
#1 – PERSECUTION
The first is one I myself considered when the question at the heart of this article first occurred to me: Jews have been the victims of rampant genocidal persecution over the years. It’s a common thread throughout their history, a recurring theme: a throughline. Massacres, pogroms, ethnic cleanings, mass murders — and not just many, but some on staggeringly large scales.
As the apocryphal jokes about Jewish holidays goes: They tried to kill us. We survived. Now, let’s eat!
Here’s a small sampling of some of the most egregious slaughters (you can find a more complete list here):
- 66 CE: Roman soldiers under the command of Tiberius Julius Alexander kill about 50,000 Jews in the Alexandria riot
- 70 CE: Over 1,000,000 Jews perish following the destruction of the Second Temple during the First Jewish–Roman War
- 132–135 CE: Roman Emperor Hadrian crushes Bar Kokhba revolt, killing 580,000 Jews
- 1146 CE: 100,000 Jews are massacred by the Almohads in Fez, Morocco and 120,000 in Marrakesh
- 1298 CE: During the civil war between Adolph of Nassau and Albrecht of Austria, German knight Rintfleisch leads a mob from town to town massacring about 100,000 Jews
- 1648–1655 CE: Ukrainian Cossacks led by Bohdan Chmielnicki massacre about 100,000 Jews
- 1917–1921 CE: Masses of Jewish civilians (by various estimates 70,000 to 250,000; the number of orphans exceeded 300,000) are murdered in pogroms in the course of the Russian Civil War
- 1939–1945 CE: About 6 million Jews, including about 1 million children, are systematically killed by Nazi Germany and other Axis powers during the Holocaust
Just these eight incidents alone account for over 8 million Jewish deaths over the years, and the above list doesn’t even include numerous instances of thousands or tens of thousands of Jews being slaughtered. Add those to the tally and 8 million balloons to well over 10 million.
While 10 million is a large number, it nowhere near bridges the gap between present-day Jewish and Christian/Muslim populations. But you have to realize something: it’s not just the direct loss of those Jews that must be taken into account. It’s also the loss of the many generations that might have been. And the further back a particular incident occurred, all things being equal, the more impact it has on the present. For example, assuming a new generation is born every 25 years or so, had a Jewish couple that was killed 1000 years ago survived, 40 generations might have descended from them, each generation exponentially larger than the previous (this is very much a back-of-the-envelope calculation). In other words, demographic compound interest, which Albert Einstein is said to have called, “the eighth wonder of the world.”
#2 – APPLES AND ORANGES
The immense loss of Jews and their might-have-been progeny in the past wouldn’t help explain the discrepancy we’re interested in had Christians and Muslims experienced similar, proportional, losses. And while the two peoples certainly faced murderous persecution over the years, it was not nearly to the same degree that Jews did — factor #2.
The same logic we applied to the generations that might have been from factor #1 can equally be applied here. Every Muslim/Christian not killed 1,000 years ago may very well have spawned 40 future generations.
However, these two factors, alone, cannot account for the small numbers of Jews relative to Christians and Muslims. As mentioned above, three other factors seem to have played a role. The three are all closely related but unique enough that I felt they should be treated as separate but connected contributors.
#3 & #4 – PROSELYTISM
Factor #3 is: Judaism has never been a religion that proselytizes. In simpler terms, Jews don’t seek to convert others. Again, our logic from factors #1 and #2 can be applied here, as well. Had Judaism been a proselytizing religion, and had a non-Jewish couple been converted 1000 years ago, 40 generations of Jews might have descended from them.
As with factors #1 and #2 this, in and of itself, does little to shed light on the overarching disparity. It must be considered in conjunction with factor #4: Muslims and Christians were (and still are) proselytizers. In the past, Islam achieved this mainly through forced conversion and waging wars/conquest. Christians employed similar tactics, though additionally, they relied heavily upon global missionaries seeking to spread the word of Christ.
This brings us to the fifth and final factor: many Jews converted to these two religions — not just as a result of forced conversion, but also to escape persecution. Not only did this serve to inflate the global Christian and Muslim populations over the centuries, not only did it shrink the Jewish population, but again, a Jewish couple lost to conversion 1000 years ago might well have produced 40 generations of Muslims/Christians that otherwise would have been Jewish.
WHAT WOULD HAVE BEEN?
Confronted with all of the above, I can’t help but wonder: how many Jews would there be today were it not for these factors? Even if I knew the ins and outs of demographic modelling, population growth, and the spread of religion, I feel like estimating the number would be unimaginably difficult and the estimation inaccurate. As I said before, there are just so many variables, so many unknowns. It’s interesting to note, however, that in his 2001 book Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, author James Carroll writes:
Jews accounted for 10% of the total population of the Roman Empire. By that ratio, if other factors had not intervened, there would be 200 million Jews in the world today, instead of something like 13 million.
A sobering thought, indeed.