Review of ‘The Rise of Christianity’

   The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark. HarperSanFrancisco, 1997; 246 pages.

Once upon a time the relationship between sociology and religion would have yielded a book with much harsher criticisms of the rise of Christianity, that is, if the two disciplines could converge on the same road at all with any sort of congeniality.  Rodney Stark has stepped above these intramural debates and has risen to the task of writing a thoroughly engaging, thoughtful and innovative work by melding historically informed research with sociological data to produce this work on the rise of early Christianity.  For a scholar to write a book that is a must-read for any student of Theology, Church History, Patristics, Sociology and Religious Studies is no small task!

Overview of Argument

Concerning chapter one, Stark goes through the “arithmetic of growth”  to demonstrate in quantitative terms how the early Church actually grew.  He shows that a forty percent growth rate per decade would be sufficient to account for the size of the Christian community up through the fourth century and draws a contemporary analogy from the Mormon Church.  The implications of his growth curve actually result in a steady rise, not an overnight phenomenon as previous scholarship had posited.  Stark rejects the idea of mass conversion by holding to his steady growth curve instead and denying that conversion takes place primarily because of doctrine.  He credits growth to “interpersonal attachments” through “open networks” by drawing on his research with Moonies.   The author then treats some social and historical research models and clearly articulates differences between classification and explanation, giving his own preference for the latter in this work, which he will accomplish by familiarizing “historians of the early church with more powerful and modern social scientific tools.”
In chapter two Stark argues against the proletarian view by affirming that Christianity, from the beginning, recruited from among the socially elite, not just the down and out.  He echoes other contemporary scholars in reading 1 Corinthians 1:26-28, among other historical evidence, as implying some early Christians were in fact of noble status.    He asserts that [his] sociological research supports the theory that accepting a new faith is often more likely to be done by the privileged.
Chapter three is an attempt to demonstrate that Christianity spread successfully, from the beginning, to the Jewish population and that Jewish Christianity was foundational to the Christian movement and persisted as a strong population well into the fifth century.  Stark argues from analogy that the Hellenized Jews of the Greco-Roman world were postured to accept Christianity much in the same way that nineteenth-century Jews embraced Reformed Judaism.
In the fourth chapter, Stark shows that the triumph of Christianity over and against Paganism was due to several factors that, if otherwise had not occurred, could have resulted in drastically different circumstances.  Such factors include epidemics, plagues, and diseases, all of which, as Stark asserts, have not prior to modern research been adequately factored into the rise of Christianity, in general, and the fall of Paganism, in particular.   He supports his claims by drawing from the writings of Cyprian and the Easter letter of Dionysius (the Bishop of Alexandria) and by applying control theories of conformity.  Stark brilliantly shows how bonds developed between Christians and the sick they nursed during plagues and famines would have resulted in a substantial conversion rate from paganism to Christianity.
The argument in chapter five is fourfold:  there was a greater number of women within the Christian context than without; women had greater status in the Christian community; exogamous marriages provided for “secondary converts”; and more Christian women resulted in greater birthrates to sustain and grow the Christian movement.  One cannot help but notice the crucial common denominator of women in the early church.  Their importance to Stark obviously cannot be overstated.
In chapters six and seven Stark asks, “What characteristics of cities were conducive to Christianization?”   He surveys twenty-two cities in relation to the possibility of travel between them which would foster “communication, cultural contact, and networks of interpersonal relationships based on kinship, friendship, or commerce.”   Such a state of affairs would have naturally allowed for the dissemination of ideas, whether they be Jewish or Gnostic forms of Christianity.   Stark then shows that as Christianity became more well-known among the people of the city, its receptivity by them was closely linked to its explanatory power and scope to meet the needs of diverse people-groups that lived through catastrophic uncertainties.
Chapter eight breaches the subject of martyrdom as a catalyst for religious growth.  The author frames his argument with sociologically pregnant terms such as compensators, rewards, commodity and benefits.  Overall, Starke demonstrates that martyrs made rational choices because those choices resulted in the greatest compensators than rival options. Moreover, voluntary martyrs instantiated credibility within the movement, which in turn provided for greater enlistment into the faith and helped in weeding out “free-riders,” those who would abuse and exploit the benefits of involvement in Christianity.
Stark notes in chapter nine that the context of the “conventional religious organization(s)”  were relatively weak enough to allow for the entrance and growth of the Christian movement.  The weakening of the religious context was due primarily to the extremely pluralistic environment and the inability of Paganism to compete with Christianity.  Moreover, Stark argues that as societies age and grow they tend to move towards monotheism, which in this context could be attributed to the widespread influence that Judaism had on the contemporary culture.  This, coupled with the disorganization of a pluralistic society that could not demand exclusive commitment as Christianity could, was a major factor in the growth of Christianity.
In his last chapter, Stark shows that the inherent virtue of the “central doctrines of Christianity prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organizations.”   This was accomplished through doctrines such as those that taught that God was loving and so Christians should be also.  Moreover, Christianity offered a “coherent culture that was entirely stripped of ethnicity.”

Analysis

It must be stated that all convergences of opinion between Stark and myself cannot be treated due to how much appreciation, wonder and agreement I have for his research. However, concerning areas of agreement I have quite a few primary agreements I would like to address.
First, it seems intuitively true that conversion to deviant groups would naturally occur if one had stronger social ties to such a group.  Speaking from personal experience, I enlisted into the punk rock movement of the late 90’s, before it was cool, at least partially because my closest friends were already members.  In fact, my departure and disillusionment with this crowd occurred only after I severed those relationships.
Moreover, I would echo his assertion, along with modern scholarship, that there were most likely some, if not a good amount, of influential, noble and economically affluent people in the ranks of Christianity from the beginning of the movement.  His appeal to the letters of Ignatius is crucial for this point.  It does not seem likely that Ignatius would have appealed to his fellow believers to refrain from intervening violently to stop his death.  We must remember that he wrote before 110 A.D.  Therefore, the Christian community was scarcely powerful enough at this point to fight physically, nor would their ethics have allowed for such.  More plausibly, Ignatius’ appeals allude to their social power, that is, their ability to have intervened within the ranks of society by exerting political force to stop his death.
I think that the author’s assertion that Christianity would have been a more attractive option than others have often thought is intriguing.  It seems certain that it would have been a natural sequence for the God-Fearers to join up with the Christian cause.  However, his case for a pro-longed successful mission to the Jews is not as obvious.  Perhaps his strongest point is the following assertion:
Indeed, would the destruction of the Temple and of the center of “ethnic” Judaism not have added to the growing weakness of traditional Orthodoxy in the diaspora and thus have increased the potential appeal of Christianity?  We must not mistake what could well have been a “remnant” Orthodox Judaism of the fifth and sixth centuries for the dominant Judaism of the Hellenized communities of the second through fourth centuries.

Stark also credits the defeat of Marcionic theology to the presence of a Christian community with “Jewish roots and strong current ties to the Jewish world.”   I certainly understand his point and I agree with Stark in that it seems that the destruction of the temple would have greatly weakened the traditionalists and disoriented many Jews.  However, it is just as possible that Marcion’s theology was rejected not because of the presence of a traditional Jewish-Christian community, but because of its discontinuity with the teaching of the central figure of Christianity, Jesus.  Christ regularly cited and used the Old Testament in ways suggesting its value, if not inspiration, for the life of his followers (Matthew 21:42; 22:29; Mark 12:24; John 13:18).  Thus, it seems that Marcion’s theology could have been rejected without appealing to a strong Jewish presence in the community of faith.  Pamela Eisenbaum asserts that “Stark makes the surprising claim that the mission to the Jews was successful—in contradiction to nearly every other historian of Christianity.”    While I admit that I am at the mercy of Eisenbaum’s scholary integrity and honesty, if she is right then this should cause great caution surrounding Stark’s claim.
I commend Stark for his brave new measures to bring together sociology and the history and rise of Christianity.  While not knowing much about sociological theory myself, I think it was a wise choice for him to set his findings alongside those of relatively contemporary scholarship.  By doing this the plausibility of his theories exponentially rise for me.  However, without the faculty or background in sociological research, I am afraid that I cannot comment exhaustively on his methodology.  However, he writes in a very clear and cogent manner, and I see no blatant reasons to reject his methods of research.
I must affirm his theories concerning the rational basis for martyrdom.  People often die for things that are not true, but no one dies for something they know to be false.  Indeed, the early martyrs died because they thought that the Christian faith was a justifiable cause worth dying for and that the rewards were far superior to the costs.  Moreover, I can think of no more effective catalyst than for a close friend or loved one, or even an acquaintance or complete stranger, to die for a cause in which an observer has equity.
Naturally I agree with his point concerning the inherent virtue of the doctrine of Christianity.  One doesn’t need to be a New Testament scholar to recognize that the text clearly teaches that Jesus’ message was radical and strange to the established religious institutions.  Certainly, the personal nature of a God who came down in the form of man to die for humanity was more intriguing and appealing than the confusing and overloaded Greek Pantheon.
Concerning areas of disagreement, I found myself agreeing with much of what he said.  With that said, I do have some questions or a few primary concerns that I would like to address.  First, I thought that Stark’s point regarding the reciprocal payoff for all committed members was ingenious.  However, I want to make a small qualification to Stark’s assertion where he states the following:
And herein lies a major aspect of the eventual triumph of Christianity: exclusive firms are far stronger organizations, far better able to mobilize extensive resources and to provide highly credible religious compensators, as well as substantial worldly benefits.

It seems that there are a lot of other factors that must also be present for an exclusive firm to be the right firm to win out.  For instance, we know of many other “Christian” groups that were even more exclusive, yet did not “win out” in the end like Orthodox Christianity.  Joseph M. Bryant makes this case by mentioning that even though there were “more rigorist and exclusive of the Christian firms—the Montanists, Novatianists, and Donatists—each eventually ‘lost out.’”   It is intriguing to me that if in fact there was such a large population of females in the early Christian community as Stark posits, why did Montanism not win out, especially since it was more exclusive and emphasized the priesthood of women?
This brings me to my next concern:  Why would a community of faith with a predominately female population give rise to a world religion that throughout its history has been thoroughly complementarian, and at times, overly patriarchal (of course, there are exceptions)?  Moreover, if there was also a strong presence of Jewish followers with strong Judaic roots within Christianity throughout the first five centuries of the church, how did traditional Jewish views regarding the worth and value of women in the community play out in this context?  Do we have any documents in the early church mentioning strife between those who held traditional Jewish views concerning women and others who embraced the newfound freedom and value of women in the Christian community?
My last concern, again, is more of a qualification of Stark’s argument.  He states in chapter ten that “as they [Christians] gained ascendancy they prohibited such [gladiatorial] ‘games.’”    However, Bruce Malina of Creighton University insists that “gladiatorial games continued well after Constantine, and Pope Damasus had two gladiators as bodyguards.”  Perhaps in this instance it would be wise for Stark to re-qualify his statement to avoid any factual errors and sweeping generalizations.

Three Personal Benefits
First, it must be said that this book is exquisitely crafted to stimulate a greater appreciation for the very human aspects of the growth of Christianity.  Stark does not capitulate to typical spiritually driven hypotheses nor does he a priori dismiss the value of religious factors in the rise of new religions.  Coming from a background of over-spiritualization to the minutiae myself, it is refreshing to read his research on how Christianity rose and conquered.  Moreover, this book offers a healthy and helpful alternative, from a non-Christian scholar, to my experiences with secular professors of religion that rail against early Christian converts for being driven by irrational or superstitious motives.
Second, this book is helpful to me professionally in that it provides me with some great background information from different disciplinary perspectives on the rise of Christianity.  As an aspiring college professor, it is imperative for me to acquire a firm grasp on any material that engages the people of God.  Moreover, it is always good for one to approach subject matter from different perspectives as well.  Indeed, this book is an invaluable resource towards this end.
Finally, greater knowledge of the rise of Christianity no doubt helps in presenting an intellectually satisfying apologia for the Christian faith. In a post-Enlightenment, post-modern era, propositional truth has given way to pragmatic and utilitarian theories of truth.  Yet, as Christians we affirm that “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and no man comes to the Father except through him” (John 14:6).  Indeed, Jesus must be preached, but more importantly, his work in history through the rise and development of his bride, the Church, must be proclaimed. To echo Richard V. Pierard, “from this excursus through the early history of Christianity, we can gain many useful insights into how we should function in our work of spreading the gospel.”   Through the study of Christian history vis-vis Stark’s book, one can see a cross-cultural appeal to the inherent virtue of the Christian faith.  However, it is not just faith; it is reasonable faith that is efficacious to change the culture which it encounters.  We see this clearly in Stark’s research

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