THE RISE OF CHRISTIANITY: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries
New York, NY: Harper One, 1996
The author of this fascinating book, Rodney Stark, was Professor of Sociology and Comparative Religion at the University of Washington for 32 years, then moved to Baylor University where he is currently co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion.
The subtitle of the book is the best summary I know as to what Stark is seeking to explain: “How the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the western world in a few centuries.”
The author traces the growth of Christianity in the early centuries, not as I would, i.e. from the standpoint of the work of the Holy Spirit as the gospel is preached by the apostles and early church fathers, but from sociological standpoint.
Many scholars and journalists have written words of appreciation for this well researched work. For example, Kenneth Woodward, former religion editor of Newsweek Magazine: “Stark finds that Christians prospered the old fashion way: by providing a better, happier and more secure way of life. … In the end, Stark concludes, Christians ‘revitalized’ the Roman Empire.”
For me this scholarly, yet readable study opened up a new way, a sociological, as well as historical way, to look at the growth of the Christian Church in the first several centuries AD.
Random quotes from The Rise of Christianity
- Constantine’s conversion should better be seen as a response to the massive exponential wave in progress, not as its cause.
- Most people do not really become very attached to the doctrines of their new faith until AFTER their conversion.
- Conversion to new deviant religious groups occurs when, other things being equal, people have or develop stronger attachment to members of the group than they have to nonmembers.
- New religious movements mainly draw their converts from the ranks of the religiously inactive and discontented, and those affiliated with the most accommodated (worldly) religious opportunities.
- Above all we should give weight to the presence and influence of friends.
- If we are to better understand and explain the rise of Christianity, we must discover how the early Christians maintained open networks – for it would seem certain that they did.
- For most of the twentieth century historians and sociologist agreed that, in its formative days, Christianity was a movement of the disposed – a haven for Rome’s slaves and impoverished masses. … In recent decades, however, New Testament historians have begun to reject this notion of the social basis of the early Christian movement.
- There were Christians among the aristocracy (in Rome) in the second half of the first century (Acilius Glabrio and the Christian Flavians.)
- Historian Edward Gibbon argued, Christianity necessarily would have included many from the lower class ranks simply because most people belonged to those classes.
- W.M. Ramsay wrote in his classic study that Christianity “spread first among the educated more rapidly than among the uneducated; nowhere had it a stronger hold … than among the households and in the courts of the emperors.”
- It was not a proletarian movement but was based on the more privileged classes.
- During his ministry, Jesus seems to have been the leader of a sect movement within Judaism.
- Jews continued as a significant source of Christian converts until at least as late as the fourth century and that Jewish Christianity was still significant in the fifth century.
- Religious movements can grow because their members continue to form new relationships with outsiders.
- Christianity offered twice as much cultural continuity to the Hellenized Jews as to Gentiles.
- Cyprian, Dionysius, Eusebius, and other church fathers thought the epidemics (plagues and diseases) made major contributions to the Christian cause. … Christianity offered a much more satisfactory account of why these terrible times had fallen upon humanity. … When disasters struck, the Christians were better able to cope, and this resulted in substantially higher rates of survival.
- Tertullian claimed: “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look,’ they would say, ‘look how they love one another!’”
- Harnack quoted the duties of deacons as outlined in the Apostolic Constitutions to show that they were set apart for the support of the sick, infirm, poor, and disabled.
- Why were women accorded higher status in Christian circles than elsewhere in the classical world?
- I will build a case for accepting that relatively high rates of intermarriage existed between Christian women and pagan men, and will suggest how these would have generated many “secondary” conversions to Christianity.
- Women were more likely than men to become Christians.
- There are abundant reasons to accept that Christian women enjoyed a favorable sex ratio, and to show how that resulted in Christian women’s enjoying superior status in comparison to pagan counterparts.
- It is well known that the early church attracted an unusual number of high status women.
- There is virtual consensus among historians of the early church as well a biblical scholars that women held positions of honor and authority within early Christianity.
- Within the Christian subculture it was husbands who were in short supply. Herein lay an excellent opportunity for gaining secondary converts.
- Whenever a mixed marriage occurs, the less religious person will usually join the religion of the more religious member.
- Although it is impossible to know actual fertility rates among Christians … (there is evidence) to suggest that superior Christianity fertility played a significant role in the rise of Christianity.
- The abundance of Christian women resulted in higher birthrates – superior fertility contributed to the rise of Christianity.
- Christianity was first and foremost an urban movement.
- The people of the Roman Empire traveled more extensively and more easily than anyone before them did or would again until the nineteenth century.
- People are more willing to adopt a new religion to the extent that it retains cultural continuity with conventional religion with which they are already familiar.
- Jews were the primary sources of converts until well into the second century.
- Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems.
- Martyrs are the most credible exponents of the value of a religion, and this is especially true if there is a voluntary aspect to their martyrdom.
- By voluntarily accepting torture and death rather than defecting, a person sets the highest imaginable value upon a religion and communicates that value to others.
- As societies become older, larger, and more cosmopolitan, they will worship fewer gods of greater scope.
- Christianity found a substantial opportunity to expand because of the incapacities of paganism, weaknesses quite outside of Christian control.
- One was “converted” to the intolerant faiths of Judaism and Christianity while one merely adhered to the cults of Isis, Orpheus, or Mithra.
- Nor were the clergy distanced from their flocks – they were not an initiated elite holding back arcane secrets, but teachers and friends, selected, as Tertullian explained, “not by purchase, but by established character.”
- Christianity was a mass movement, rooted in a highly committed rank and file, it had the advantage of the best of all marketing techniques: person-to-person influence.
- Christians effectively promulgated a moral vision utterly incompatible with the casual cruelty or pagan custom.
- Finally, what Christianity gave to its converts was nothing less than humanity. In this sense virtue was its own reward.