John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v.3, ch. 24 : Jesus in Relation to His Followers: The Crowds,
pp 19-39

(Detailed summary)

Did Jesus really draw large crowds during His ministry?


Is the presence of crowds a creation of the evangelists for literary and religious reasons, in order to introduce a form of chorus into the narratives and accentuate the popularity of Jesus for propaganda reasons? Using the criteria of historicity that are the multiple attestations of the sources and the final rejection of Jesus, it must be acknowledged that, historically, Jesus attracted crowds. All the gospels mention him, as does the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. This fact helps to understand Jesus' crucifixion, an intervention by the authorities before this popularity got out of hand.

On the other hand, this crowd remains an undifferentiated mass whose number cannot be appreciated. There is a majority of poor people, but there are also people who have means. The majority of these people will not cross the invisible line that separates an audience of onlookers or sympathizers from a group of committed adherents.

  1. Introduction: Finding the Proper Label

    The gospels use the verb "to follow" to describe the relationship of people with Jesus. But this verb refers to the physical act of following, and includes all possible attitudes, from the pseudo-disciple who is simply curious, to the sympathizer who adheres to his message, to the true disciple who becomes committed to his person. This verb is found almost exclusively in the gospels and therefore describes a vast spectrum of different attitudes. Our study will begin with the outer circle of the merely curious before analyzing the inner group of the Twelve. Note that these different concentric circles are fluid, since people who were initially sympathetic could later become indifferent.

  2. The Outer Circle: the Crowds

    The gospels use various expressions in reference to crowds: the crowd (ochloi), the multitude (plethos), many people (polloi), and all (pantes). The historical fact that Jesus drew crowds is confirmed by the use of two of our criteria for historicity: the multiple attestation of the sources and the rejection of Jesus.

    1. All four gospels mention the presence of crowds. Take, for example, the account of Jesus feeding the crowd (Mk 6:32-44; Mt 14:13-21; Jn 6:1-13; Mk 8:1-10; Mt 15:32-39), which presupposes the existence of a large crowd, even if the figure of 5,000 people is taken with a grain of salt. The mention of the crowd is sometimes on the lips of the disciples as witnessed by the healing of the hemorrhaging woman (Mk 5:24-34 parr.) when they mention the crowd after Jesus' question asking who had touched him. Jesus' words sometimes presuppose a crowd, as in Mk 8:2 (the beginning of the feeding of the crowd), "I have pity on the crowd, for already three days they have been staying with me and they have no food." The Q Document contains two references to the crowd: Mt 9:33 || Lk 11:14 (The crowds marveled said...) and Mt 11:7 || Lk 7:24 (Jesus began to tell the crowds...). Finally, there is the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus who, in his Jewish Antiquities, writes, "And Jesus drew to himself many Jews and many Greeks."

    2. The criterion of rejection of Jesus and his death also confirms that, historically speaking, Jesus attracted crowds. First, it is easier to understand Jesus' crucifixion by the fact that he attracted a large crowd rather than by the fact that he would have been ignored by the general population. Then there is the example of John the Baptist who, according to Flavius Josephus, was very popular with the crowds, and it was this success that led Herod Antipas to throw him into prison and have him put to death. Although the Jewish historian does not say this explicitly for Jesus, the fact that he was crucified immediately after mentioning his success with the crowds points us in the same direction. And it is quite likely that this success with the crowds continued right up to the end, at the Jewish Passover feast in Jerusalem, because that is when Caiaphas and Pilate decide to intervene, before things go too far.

    Can we give an idea of the size of this crowd? Unfortunately, we lack the data. This crowd remains largely undifferentiated. The vast majority are poor, but that is the fact of most people in first century Palestine. A few individuals emerge from this crowd:

    • Levi, the customs collector in Capernaum (Mk 2:13-15)
    • The woman with the hemorrhages who had some wealth and had spent it with the doctors (Mk 5:25-34)
    • Jairus, a synagogue leader who lived in a house with many rooms (Mk 5:21-43)
    • A centurion or royal officer in the employ of Herod Antipas (Mt 8:513; Jn 4:46-54)
    • Zacchaeus, a rich customs collector in Jericho (Lk 19:1-10)
    • A woman able to afford a very expensive ointment (equivalent to a year's wage for a day laborer, say $35,000) which she wastes on Jesus (Mk 14:3-9)
    • The anonymous Jerusalem landlord who offers Jesus and his disciples a room for his last meal (Mk 14:12-26)
    • Different owners who receive Jesus and his disciples as guests throughout his public ministry

    This image of Jesus hanging out with the wealthy is balanced by his association with lepers, blind beggars and many people who were on the margins of society. Finally, it should be noted that this crowd around Jesus is different from the group called "sinners", people who had rejected the commandments of the God of Israel and had adopted the customs of the Gentiles.

    The interest of this crowd in Jesus and his religious movement is similar to that of many Jews in the Pharisee movement: they find a mixture of respect, sympathy and even sometimes acceptance of a certain influence, but without going as far as full membership.

Who can be considered a disciple of Jesus?

List of all chapters