If you are like most people with an interest in early Christian history, you probably think that the mission to the Jews as a massive failure and that a majority of early Christians were from the lower strata of society. And you probably have a hard time fathoming how it is that this small, persecuted sect went from a group of Jewish peasants in a backwater of the Roman Empire to, 350 years later, becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Rodney Stark’s book will blow your preconceived notions out of the water. Stark approaches the early Christian movement with the mind and methods of a sociologist, catching many items that historians have let slip through the cracks as insignificant, smashing some of the long-held and greatly-loved myths of early Christian history, and going a long way in explaining why Christianity would eventually become the dominant cultural force of the West and the world.
His thesis that the mission to the Jews was actually a stunning success is particularly interesting as it is a piece of “common knowledge” that the mission to the Jews failed and Christianity became a Gentile religion. On the contrary, says Stark, Jews converted in great numbers to Christianity well into the fifth century. He points out that fifth century Church Fathers like St. John Chrysostom would have had no reason to be so concerned about “Judaizers” as they were had Christianity become a thoroughly Gentile religion by that point. He also points out, using the modern Reformed movement in Judaism as a reference point, that Christianity would have been exactly the religion that the rather impious, thoroughly Hellenized Jews of the Diaspora would have been looking for; it had significant links to and indeed claimed to be a continuation of the Jewish revelation while at the same time disposing of, within a largely hostile Gentile majority, what would have been the more cumbersome aspects of the Torah, such as circumcision and eating kosher.
His thesis that the early Christians included a significant number of moderately wealthy individuals is also a particularly interesting one that seeks to turn the “common knowledge” of early Christianity on its head. He argues that there were a relatively large number of converts to Christianity from amongst the noble and even imperial families, and the evidence is presents is quite convincing. Interestingly, this lends a great deal of credence to the traditions regarding some of the saints who are said to have been members of the various imperial households; however, he does not address a point which I think needs to be addressed in order to establish this argument, namely, the accusations of pagans like Celsus in the second century who claimed that Christianity was essentially a movement of the uneducated riffraff. While I don’t think that a failure to address this point hurts Stark’s analysis, it would have strengthened his position to have addressed it.
It think perhaps the most valuable aspect of Stark’s book is the application of sociological principles to the study of early Christianity especially in the realm of studying rates of conversion; he reaches the conclusion that the growth rate of Christianity was 40% per decade for its first 350 years or so. He also does an excellent job of explaining why it is that women and urbanites were disproportionately represented amongst early Christians, a fact taken for granted and rarely explained by historians.
Even while demonstrating the variety of contributing sociological and incidental factors in the rapid growth of Christianity in its early centuries, Stark, as a responsible and intelligent scholar, is clear that the primary accelerant for Christianity’s remarkable expansion was its novel idea of unbounded loving charity. He explains that Christianity’s greatest strength was its revolutionary theology of universal brotherhood and that this, in the end, was the reason that it grew from a small Jewish sect to the largest religion in the world.
Stark’s book is an excellent read for anyone interested in early Christian history. His innovative approach, using sociological rather than historical methods, brings many new revelations and does much to further explain the origins of Christianity. This book is a great starting point for a reevaluation of some of the common notions of historians of early Christianity and I hope that future historians will apply some of Stark’s findings to their research as they will do much to contribute to our knowledge of the nativity of the Western world.