Why did Christianity grow so rapidly in the first four centuries AD? How did a tiny unknown movement of a group of people grow to be one of the dominant forces in the Roman Empire? “God’s providence” and “miracles” has been the easiest way to explain such a puzzle. Yet, stopping at such answers deprives us from the opportunity to better understand the complexity of the early Christians growth and takes from us the lessons we can gain from the experience. Rodney Stark, professor of sociology and comparative religion at University of Washington, analyzes this puzzle.
He “introduces historians and biblical scholars to real social science, including formal rational choice theory, theories of the firm, the role of social networks and interpersonal attachments in conversion, dynamic population models, social epidemiology, and models of religious economies”. The result is stimulating, provocative, and revolutionary. In “The Rise of Christianity”, Rodney Stark identifies several factors that contributed to the spread and acceptance of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire from 0 to approximately 400 AD.
He challenges the idea that the rate of growth of Christianity during that period can only be explained by miracles and mass conversion; instead using creative social science tools he shows how the characteristics of Christianity became appealing to many and thus leading to the spread. He notes however that his study is not an attempt to deny the probable role of the divine, but instead he believes that worldly societal factors can help explain the puzzle. ? Stark begins by developing a projection on how fast Christianity grew in the first four centuries. He works backwards from an estimate of 5-7. million Christians in the fourth century to a starting number of 120 (derived from Acts 1:14-15), and estimates that Christianity grew about 3. 42 percent a year and approximately 40 percent per decade. The rate is not something impossible to achieve and is not something that deviates from modern phenomena. The Mormon Church according to Stark has been growing at approximately the same rate in the last century, and there has been no claim of mass conversions occurring in the Mormon Church (pp. 3-7). In 1960s Stark together with John Lofland studied Young Oon Kim’s early mission to America.
Miss Kim and her young fol¬lowers had arrived in Oregon in 1959 from Korea to launch the Unification Church, widely known today as the Moonies. From this study two main theories observed become the bases of his explanation for the growth of Christianity as propositioned above. First, conversion to a new, deviant religious group occurs mostly through existing social networks based on strong personal attachment. Thus, the ability of a religious group to continue to maintain and expand its social networks, allow the new groups to grow.
Secondly, new religious groups draw their converts mainly from discontent, inactive, and members of relatively irreligious backgrounds. Stark argues that Christianity was not a lower-class or marginalised movement and, if anything, drew most of its members from elites. He finds deprivation theory persuasive as long as two different aspects of human want are acknowledged: while desiring rewards that are scarce (like wealth or health), people also desire rewards that are absolutely unavailable (like immortality). This latter desire “explains why the upper classes are religious” and are among those most often drawn to cult movements (pp. 2-37). Stark concludes chapter two of the study by asking the question “what difference does it make whether early Christian¬ity was a movement of the relatively privileged or of the down¬trodden? ”He states it matters a great deal because if Christianity was a proletarian movement, it would have been considered dangerous by the Caesar, which would have secured its extinction. Stark indicates that Hellenistic Jews were the matrix of Christian growth, a view confirmed by the disappearance of Hellenistic Judaism and the preservation of its literature among Alexandrian Christians.
Assuming that the attraction of Christianity for Hellenistic Jews was little different from that of Reform Judaism for nineteenth century Jews, Stark claims Christianity’s appeal lay in its retention of much of the content of both Judaism and Hellenism, while stripping away the ethnicity that relegated Jews to social marginality. Compared to Philo’s allegorized Judaism, Christianity’s vigorous otherworldly faith offered explanations for natural disasters as well as a hopeful scenario for the future (pp. 51-74).
Stark also offers two other reasons for Christianity’s early success: The epidemics in the middle of the second century were significant in winning converts to Christianity. As Eusebius indicates, due to its value of love and charity, Christians were better equipped to serve each other in their community during the epidemics, leading to a higher survival rate, which was considered as “miracle” by some pagans. In addition the traditional faith failed to provide explanations during such a huge disastrous upheaval as the epidemics, leading to the adoption of new religion.
From this event, Christianity was able to expand their networks and to satisfy the discontent citizens of the Empire. Christianity’s proscriptions of infanticide abortion, and birth control became appealing to women because by adopting Christianity they were able to avoid infanticide, abortion, and birth control practices, which at that time can be very harmful and physically hurtful. In addition these led to higher birth rates than obtained among “pagans” (pp. 100-128). The intermarriages of Christian women with “pagan” men must have produced a rash of “secondary” conversions, according to Stark.
Early Christianity was predominantly an urban movement, and there were specific “characteristics of cities that were conducive to Christianization” (p. 129). Stark, notes the acute disorganization of Greco-Roman cities which was largely caused by extraordinary congestion. The urban density of Antioch at the end of the first century, he estimates at 117 inhabitants per acre, (pp. 149-50). The sanitation system was primitive, and houses were lacking the much needed ventilation since furnaces and fireplaces were used for cooking and heating.
The consequences of such conditions were not only dirt and rampant disease, but crime and riot. This scenario of human disorder also resulted in frequent natural disasters as fire, earthquake, and famine (pp. 154-61). Christianity’s success is therefore attributed, at least in part, to its response to urban chaos and misery. What enabled Christians to risk their own Life, health and resources? Utilizing rational choice theory Stark shows that religious sacrifices and stigmas even in cases such as those of the early Christian martyrs who embraced persecution rather than defect usually turn out to represent rational choices.
Stark suggests that “the more expensive the religion, the better bargain it is” (p. 167). Costly demands tend to produce vital religious groups by effectively excluding those with low levels of commitment and participation. By asking much of its members, Christianity generated a strong sense of belonging as well as substantial rewards such as immortality (in this world as well as the next), physical aid, security and love (pp. 177-88). Stark assesses the two factors namely (1) the excessive religious pluralism and freedom in Rome, and (2) the weaknesses of Paganism that gave Christianity the opportunity to grow.
He focuses on organizational features of the Christian movement that made it a major challenger to paganism (pp. 195-98). Christianity’s success, however, was not only as a result of the weaknesses of other religions. It succeeded because the Christians doctrine was able to inspire the life of the citizens and this ability led to its growth. “And it was the way these doctrines took on actual flesh, the way they directed organizational actions and individual behaviors, that led to the rise of Christianity (pg. 211). ” Christianity offered a culture beyond ethnicity.
For cities where cultural chaos was prevalent, Christianity provided a basis of social solidarity. Christianity promoted liberating relationships between genders. For the sick and homeless, it offered service. “Above all else Christianity brought a new conception of humanity to a world saturated with capricious cruelty and the vicarious love of death. ” This book makes good reading, though it may not be accessible to almost everyone who can read. Its language and arguments are clear since Rodney Stark has deliberately written for a non-professional audience (p. 3).
It uses enlightening sociological propositions in its analysis of historical data, which help to strengthen its already convincing and original arguments. With this appreciation, some caution is required while reading the book. •First due to possible lack of ability to assess historical sources one would not be able to assess thoroughly his choices of literatures, resulting in the reader accepting Starks arguments tentatively. •Secondly, some degree of scepticism is required here because his utilization of modern sociological propositions might not be totally applicable.
Although he claims that generalization is possible, logically there must be some significant fundamental changes in societies and how human behaves from the first four to the 20th century that might affect the validity of the generalizations. To conclude, several questions were raised in my mind based on the issues raised in this book and lessons learned. Do we, as a community of Christians in Kenya, posses the characteristics of open networks? How, then do we develop such characteristics if we do not have them? Is our theology “flesh” that responds and addresses the real