Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Rise of Christianity, by Rodney Stark

This is a fascinating book on the rise of Christianity from an obscure backwater province of the Roman Empire to the dominant faith of Europe. Stark makes the case that the Christian faith succeeded for a variety of reasons. Since this is the first book on the subject that I’ve read, I can’t honestly evaluate his case that the mission to the Jews probably succeeded (more on this later) and that early Christianity wasn’t wholly confined to the poor. The other parts of his case seem to be more traditional and intuitive.

To address the issue of the class basis of early Christianity, Stark looks both to historians and the NT documents themselves. Since Marx and Engels, it has been popular to assume that the early Christians were all from the lowest classes of society; slaves and the poor. Against this notion, Stark quotes a recent historian, E.A. Judge, who was one of the first to deliver a major dissent to this opinion. According to Judge, from what we know from the documents of the first several centuries, early Christians were most likely urban dwellers, and dependents in city households. In other words, it was a largely middle class movement. I am skeptical of Stark on this point. Celsus, a second century critic of Christianity, noted that Christians tended to be illiterate slaves and women. He could have been overstating this, but I tend to trust him more than Judge. Also, the evidence would under-report lower class Christians since they are not literate and thus do not write. Stark is basing his thesis here on his modern observation that new religious movements tend to be based in the privileged classes. While this is true of contemporary America, it seems unwarranted to generalize these findings to the first several Christian centuries.

Stark, however, does make a better case that Christianity did better than most people assume with the Jews. This is particularly true of the Hellenized Jews who were looking to hold to their traditional faith but were slowly becoming more like their pagan neighbors. Christianity brought together both Gentiles and Jews in a new faith that combined aspects of both cultures. Hellenized Jews tended to be urban just as the growing Christian was. Just as there were Jews who wanted to both retain their culture and become closer to the Gentiles, there were Gentiles called ‘God-Fearers’ who had an affinity for the ethical monotheism of Judaism but who didn’t want to take the final step of obeying the Law. Pauline Christianity fit the bill for both these groups. Stark does a good job of arguing this point.

The rest of the book focuses on the fascinating reasons why Christianity supplanted paganism as the religion of the Empire. In an era of epidemics and huge natural disasters, Christians had a faith that gave hope and meaning to a world filled with vast suffering and death. It also gave prescriptions for action. While pagans fled the cities in the face of deadly plagues, Christians cared for the sick; those forgotten and left for dead by society. Christians funded charities to help people, pagans did not. This not only built up antibodies in the Christians who survived the plague but also made the surviving pagans who were helped by Christians more likely to convert. So effective were these charities, that the pagan emperor Julian tried to set up pagan charities in an effort to save the declining religion. Alien to paganism, was the idea that because God loves humanity, demonstrated through the sacrifice of his Son, he wants us to demonstrate the love to one another.

Another factor that spurred Christian growth was the role of women. Women in the Greco-Roman world weren’t treated very well to say the least. Their status in Christianity was better. By prohibiting infanticide and abortion, Christians had a far higher ratio of women to men than in the larger Roman society. In a recent excavation of a villa in the port city of Ashkelon, archaeologists discovered a ancient Roman sewer that was clogged with the refuse of nearly a hundred murdered babies. Philosophers supported abortion on demand, as evidenced by Tacitus who even supported infanticide. This combined with a pagan culture that held marriage in low esteem, created space in which a Christian church that honored children would be much more fertile.

Christianity succeeded because it stood head and shoulders above a culture that was spiritually thirsty and dying. The proliferation of pagan mystery religions, where religion was more like a commodity bought for a price, was vastly different than a religion that had a strong ethical teaching. Hyper-pluralism created an atmosphere of ‘cheap religion’ that became increasingly meaningless to those seeking something real from religion. In a culture where watching people getting torn apart is a spectator sport, infanticide was something recommended by philosophers, coupled by brutal divisions between ethnicities and sexes, Christianity gave converts nothing less than their humanity.

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