Let’s get the clichés out of the way: The Beatles are probably the best band of all time, and the Bible is the best-selling book of all time (and the best-selling book year after year). In an interview in 1966, commenting on the decline of Christianity in the UK (a more nuanced point than many think) John Lennon famously smashed these two tropes together when he commented, “We’re more popular than Jesus now.”
The reaction was immediate and severe. Tours were almost cancelled, radio stations banned The Beatles’ music, and the Vatican itself even put out a statement.
But if you take his comment literally, that in that moment, the moment John called “now,” he was right. The Beatles were bigger than Jesus for 9 days in 1966.
Now, scientifically judging the popularity of a religion as a whole is impossible, but one metric we could reasonably go by is sales of the Bible. The Bible sells so many copies each year that a majority of copies have to be going to people who already own a Bible. Could multiple Bible purchases indicate popularity? Possibly, but how many holy books would that be? Estimates for US sales range from between 20 to 25 million a year (some estimates are as high as 100 million, but this probably includes giveaways and not just sales).
If we extend those heavenly numbers back to 1966, the year Lennon committed his sacrilege, that means that between 68,000 and 68,500 copies of the Bible left book shelves every day to spread the good news. That is one popular book, but maybe not as popular as “Norwegian Wood” and “Drive My Car.”
Rubber Soul, a tour de force of rock n’ roll, sold an amazing 1.2 million copies in 9 days when it debuted in 1966. Doing the same math as we did for Bible sales, this equates to 133,000 copies of Rubber Soul souled (sorry) per day during that period.
Given the wiggle room in the Bible sales figures we have, it wouldn’t be a sin to say that there is a good chance that The Beatles were bigger than Jesus during the intense rush to snatch up all the Rubber Souls in sight.
Again, you have to buy into the idea that Bible sales can really gauge the popularity of Christianity to make this work. It’s a claim that I can easily make based on numbers, but I doubt if I was Lennon that I could hide behind record and book sales. In fact, Lennon did “apologize” after making the comment and the Vatican eventually forgave him.
Of course, another (more facetious) way to settle the matter would be to notice that because a Mesopotamian man around 2,000 years ago was likely shorter than men today, there’s a good chance that at least one of the Beatles were physically bigger than Jesus.
But that’s ridiculous…