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Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton University Press, 1996.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price


One of the hottest growth industries in the field of New Testament studies is New Testament Sociology and Anthropology. Some biblical scholars seem more concerned with the methods than with the ostensible subject matter, with the result that New Testament texts wind up serving mainly as a series of illustrations for a book on ancient Mediterranean peasant sociology. Here one thinks of Bruce J. Malina, whose first book on the subject, The New Testament World is a concise and illuminating guide to the basic application of anthropological method. He followed it up with Cultural Anthropology and Christian Origins, an indigestible block of dense jargon, and since then he has essentially paraphrased the same stuff in several different packages. John Dominic Crossan mines the same vein in The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant, which has very little to do with Jesus, very much to do with peasant sociology. Wayne Meeks (The First Urban Christians) is a master of ample historical data but tends to apply new information about the ancient world to the New Testament on the assumption that one is going to illuminate the other by hook or by crook. Do we know more about the terrible frustrations of the ancient urban dwellers? Then, Meeks tells us, we can see how much more relevant was Paul's message of love and hope. The result is almost homiletical. After a flood of sometimes-helpful books betraying a sophomoric grasp of a new toy, it is refreshing indeed to find a book on early Christianity by a professional sociologist of religion. Rodney Stark is Professor of Sociology and Comparative Religion at the University of Washington. He knows what he's talking about when it comes to sociology, and since he can take the methods as read, he actually gets beyond marveling over them and turns in substantial results.  

Stark is well aware of the danger, well-detailed by Gerald Downing in his Cynics and Christian Origins, of making sociology substitute for historical data, pretending we know what did happen when all we know is, according to a given sociological model, so-and-so should have happened. Stark conjures an astonishing amount of hard data from the ancient world, thus avoiding the pitfall of pretending to make bricks without straw. Beyond this, however, one may point out that, a la Collingwood, history writing is not merely a matter of cataloguing data. The historian uses interpretive frameworks to make sense of the data, and perhaps the most important of these is the venerable Principle of Analogy. Ancient events, about which we have less data, simply must have happened according to the observable pattern of analogous recent, better documented, events or, as F.H. Bradley pointed out, no historical inference is possible at all. Thus when Stark supposes that early Christianity evolved by the same dynamics as the Mormons and the Moonies, he is not venturing some dubious sociological extrapolation; he is practicing historical reconstruction in the classic mode. And he does it well.

Stark's conclusions are often new and surprising, other times newly confirmatory of recent speculations. For instance, Stark rounds up data tending to explode the romantic view (still beloved of Liberation theologians) that early Christianity was a proletarian movement of the oppressed. Robert Grant, Abraham Malherbe, Vernon K. Robbins, and others have recently reached the same conclusions from other types of analysis (e.g., literary-critical), and Stark nicely corroborates their findings.

Similarly, Stark's analysis of Jewish-Christian relations tends to confirm recent speculations of Georg Strecker and others that, contra F.C. Baur and Walter Bauer, Jewish Christianity continued to thrive at least well into the fourth century. Stark shows how Christianity peacefully coexisted with Judaism, even though the Hellenistic synagogue furnished a fertile ground for new Christian converts. Cosmopolitan, affluent Jews scattered throughout the Mediterranean world would have been a ripe audience for Christian preaching which assumed much common ground but freed them of the increasingly onerous ethnic identity markers that separated them from their Gentile neighbors. Christianity would have, must have, had for these people the same sort of appeal Mormonism had for many nineteenth century Americans, dissatisfied with revivalist fundamentalism and looking for something new and different--yet not too different. Jewish presence in and influence on early Christianity must have been much more significant, and for much longer, than we had thought.

It is at this point that Stark's research implicitly raises a question of which he seems (understandably) unaware, namely that of the dating of the New Testament documents. The Dutch Radical Critics of the nineteenth century held that none of the epistles ascribed to Paul were actually products of his pen, but rather were later ecclesiastical forgeries ("pseudepigrapha"). One of the most powerful arguments advanced for this view was that the texts seem to presuppose a definite break between Christianity and Judaism, a final repudiation by the synagogue of the Christian gospel. W.C. van Manen asked how such a break can already have been accomplished a mere thirty years into the Christian dispensation. It cannot have been a fait accompli this early. Stark's research only serves to heighten the difficulty. Passages like Romans chapters 9-11 must be very late indeed, to say nothing of 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16.

Nor is that the end of it. If the New Testament documents are significantly later than the dates assigned them by the conservative mainstream scholarship which Stark takes for granted, then we must reexamine the evidence for the notion that the earliest Christians were affluent and reasonably well educated. Suppose the gospels and epistles stem from the early second century. Maybe there is after all room for an earlier stage when Christianity was a movement of the oppressed such as Richard Horsley and others still imagine.

The central issue in Stark's The Rise of Christianity is that implicit in the title of the book. The rise of the Christian religion was certainly a dramatic success story. How are we to explain it? Christian laity often boast that the historic success of their faith is a proof of its divine origin. How else can it have grown from a tiny band of persecuted martyrs to the official religion of the Roman Empire in a mere three centuries? (Never mind that pretty much the same question can be raised in the cases of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Islam.) Stark gives aid and comfort to triumphalist Christians in one respect but not in another. He refutes the notion of a miraculous expansion by means of the Holy Spirit, showing how the attested growth rates of analogous modern faiths (40 % growth per decade, again, like the Moonies and the Mormons), would easily explain the population percentages of Christians attested century by century for the Empire. Thus one needs no suspension of natural law to explain the success of the movement. But sophisticated Christian apologists must have realized all along what a futile, indeed, what a back-firing argument it was to assert that Christianity succeeded by a miracle, since that implies that the faith would have failed miserably otherwise, that there was/is nothing winsome about it. Wouldn't it be better to point to the attractive features of the faith to explain its expansion? And if one wants to take this approach, one will find Stark's conclusions quite amenable.

Stark argues that, especially in two respects, it was the distinctiveness of Christian belief that fostered the religion's success. Christians acted quite differently, and history rewarded them. First, the early Christian loathing of abortion and female infanticide quickly resulted in Christians having a significantly larger proportion of women in their ranks. This development gave women greater freedom and opportunities for leadership roles, something that happens naturally in a social group with more women. By contrast, where women are scarce, as they often were in the Hellenistic world thanks to the disastrously bone-headed eugenics policies of the Roman state, they are more likely to be sequestered and rigidly controlled. Similarly, with a greater share of women to marry off, the Christian community stood to increase its numbers by a simple process of "interfaith" marriages with the non-Christian spouse converting.

Second, the Christian belief that they were duty-bound to love their neighbors as themselves, whether part of the household of faith or not, resulted in a disproportionate amount of Christian provision and caring for the sick and the helpless in times of famine, plague and crisis, of which there were many. Nor is this Christian propaganda (like inflated tales of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany). Julian the Apostate made a concerted and well-documented effort to copy the Christian social ethic in his revivified paganism, but to no avail. We hear of pagan clergy running for the hills in times of emergency: "Every man for himself!" The greater proportion of Christian sick nursed back to health as well as the number of grateful, rescued non-Christians converting swelled the ranks of Christianity. None of this implies that Christianity is the one true religion, only that certain beliefs and policies have measurable social results. Again, look at the great success of the Mormons, based on early polygamous mating patterns and later beneficence and welfare structures. Or look at the famous (though much-debated) connection between the Calvinistic work ethic and the rise of Capitalism.

On the whole, Stark's explanations for the success of Christianity appear to mirror those of E.R. Dodds (Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety). Both lay great stress on the tight community structure of the religion, the impression made upon outsiders by the courage of the martyrs, the large-hearted generosity of believers in times of crises, and the monotheistic "intolerance" that made Christian faith an all-or-nothing commitment, not a mere membership in one more salvific moose lodge like Mithraism, the Isis cult, etc., all of which were mutually tolerant, interpenetrating, redundant, and thus commanding little loyalty.



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