on March 2, 2009
Rodney Stark, a sociologist who in the 1990s began applying the tools of his craft to the study of early Christianity, is always worth reading. Cities of God is an interesting, provocative, and often illuminating study of the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire. It applies the methods of quantitative analysis to the geography, urbanism, and other aspects of the Christian movement and its major forerunners and competitors. Most of Stark's conclusions are neither new nor radical, but they are significant because they are supported by modes of analysis not typically employed by biblical scholars or historians of antiquity.
Among Stark's CONVINCING CONCLUSIONS:
(1) Christianity spread not through mass conversions but through the example and witness of rank-and-file believers who traveled for commercial and other reasons. (2) Sea travel was more important than Roman roads in facilitating the spread of Christianity and other eastern religions. (3) Christianity found especially fertile soil in large cities--especially port cities and Hellenized cities. (5) Cybele and Isis worship were important stepping stones--ritual, emotional, and intellectual--for many pagans who came to embrace Christianity. (5) Gnosticism (a dubious category) and Demiurgical religions were neither offshoots of Judaism nor early and widespread forms of Christianity but amalgams of paganism and Greek philosophy (especially Platonism) that had little appeal to most Greco-Romans, whether Christian or pagan. (6) Mithraism was never a serious competitor to Christianity but a male-dominated army cult with little appeal to the masses. (7) Constantine was not responsible for the triumph of Christianity. (8) It was the emperor Julian (the "Apostate") who exacerbated tensions between pagans and Christians. (9) Paganism did not end quickly but persisted into the fifth and sixth centuries.
Much less convincing--because they are not supported with much argument or evidence--are Stark's hypothesis cum theses concerning Judaism and the mission of Paul.
Among Stark's MOST DUBIOUS AND LEAST SUPPORTED CLAIMS:
(1) JUDAISM WAS A MISSIONARY RELIGION (pp. 6-7; etc). This claim is weakly supported by appeals to a few Old Testament verses and a statement of the Medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides. It is not backed up by any evidence from Jewish sources of the Greco-Roman period and fails to consider the best scholarship on the subject (e.g., Martin Goodman 1994, Mission and Conversion; Shaye Cohen 1999, The Beginnings of Jewishness; Scott McKnight 1991, Light among the Gentiles: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period).
(2) PAUL DIRECTED MOST OF HIS MISSIONARY EFFORTS AT DIASPORA JEWS AND NOT GENTILES (pp. 120-139). This claim is belied by the testimony of Paul's own letters. It relies on an uncritical reading of the book of Acts. Paul certainly attended synagogues (see 2 Cor. 11:24) and no doubt evangelized Jews when he did (see 1 Cor. 9:19-21), but Gentiles were his first and primary target audience (e.g., Gal. 1:15-17; 2:7-9; Rom. 11:13). His letters simply to not reflect that he had spent the prior decade or two evangelizing Jews.
(3) PAUL DEMANDED THAT JEWISH CHRISTIANS CEASE OBSERVING THE LAW (pp. 130, 169). This claim is asserted without argument or appeal to evidence. It has no basis in either Paul's letters or even the book of Acts. Indeed, Acts suggests that did not make such demands of Jewish believers in Jesus (see Acts 21:20-26). Paul opposed forcing Gentile believers in Jesus to practice Torah, but no source tells us that he told Jewish believers to stop observing it. Paul regarded Torah observance as such as a matter of indifference (Gal. 5:5; 6:15; 1 Cor. 7:19). His view was that ritual Torah observance ("the works of the Law") does not make anyone, Jew or Gentile, members of God's covenant people or secure their final salvation (Galatians 3; Romans 3-4).
(4) JUDAIZING ACTIVITY IN THE 4TH AND 5TH CENTURY PROVES THAT SIGNIFICANT NUMBERS OF JEWS CONTINUTED TO CONVERT TO CHRISTIANITY INTO LATE ANTIQUITY (pp. 136-139). What Judaizing activity (following Jewish customs) more likely suggests is the reverse: Judaism (or at least aspects of Jewish observance) continued to attract Christians into late antiquity. Further, in patristic literature the label "Judaizing" often has nothing to do with following Jewish customs; in the writings of some church fathers, it is a polemical label for Christians whose Christology is too "low" or who interpret the Old Testament literally instead of figuratively (see, e.g., Shaye Cohen 1999, The Beginnings of Jewishness; Michelle Murray 2004, Playing a Jewish Game: Gentile Christian Judaizing in the First and Second Centuries C.E.).
(5) ANTI-JUDAISM SUGGESTS CLOSE PROXIMITY TO JUDAISM AND OPPOSITION TO IT (e.g., p. 169). This is not necessarily the case. Like the phenomenon of Judaizing, anti-Judaism need not imply direct contact with or influence from Jews or Judaism. As often as not, it looks like a matter of intra-Christian theological disputes and seems not have been encouraged by non-Christian Jews.
In sum, as a scholar of early Judaism and early Christianity, I find Stark mostly persuasive when he writes about early Christianity's relations to Greco-Roman paganism. But I find him wrongheaded in much of what he says about Judaism and Paul.
I am not a Christian, but I am interested in the history of Christianity. Rodney Stark, I've concluded, is probably the leading historian of Christianity and, best of all, he doesn't defend, proselytize. mythologize - he simply describes the history. And, surprisingly, according to Stark, the history of Christianity is a more positive force than many historians want to give it credit for.
Stark takes many contemporary historians, like the late Arthur Schlesinger, for their devotion to personal ideologies than to fact. As an example, Stark thoroughly dissects Schlesinger's misunderstanding of Andrew Jackson's popularity in a Pulitzer Prize winning book.
With that quality in mind, Stark debunks many popular, but apparently false, myths about early Christianity. Factoids: many Roman emperors appointed many pagans to political office during the ascendancy of Christianity in Rome, contrary to the myth that Christians forced paganism out of existence.
The book is rich in historical detail, some of it drawn from surprising sources: the inscriptions on ancient tombstones. The basic theme is that Christianity became an urban religion that ultimately conquered the failing Roman Empire. Another surprise: the larger cities developed Christian populations sooner then smaller cities.
Overall, for any student of history, Stark provides a valuable contribution. There is no overtly religious content in the book, so people with an aversion or animus to religion can read it comfortably.
Rodney Stark writes well. On topics that can turn even talented writers boring, Stark's books consistently arouse interest and curiosity. His books are smooth, easy to read, and avoids cumbersome language. As a result, it usually takes me about half the time to finish books by Stark compared to other books related to classical history. Cities of God is no exception.
Stark begins by given descriptions of all the significant cities in the ancient Roman world. These descriptions alone are quite valuable and provide insight into the Roman world and day-to-day life within it. But his collection of cities is just the beginning, as Stark goes on to explain how they became Cities of God.
The subtitled of the book is "The Real Story of How Christianity Became Urban Movement and Conquered Rome." True enough, but another subtitle could be, "How to Use Statistics to Test Historical Propositions." Stark is a big believer in the use of statistics and math to solve histories elusive problems. The extent to which he succeeds I will leave to readers and his peers statisticians. But the book is an interesting read just to see how such an approach to history could work. For my part, I thought some of Stark's propositions, such as that cities closer to Jerusalem were Christianized sooner, that Hellenistic cities Christianized sooner than Roman ones, and that large cities Christianized sooner than smaller ones, were well established.
I am less confident in his conclusions about certain mystery religions "paving the way" for monotheism. Even if the numbers reflect ancient reality, the conclusion does not seem to follow from the premise. However, Stark's arguments about Gnosticism and related heresies being late and derivative are well taken.
Stark also continues to advance two theories he mentioned in his The Rise of Christianity. First, he emphasizes relationships and the practical usefulness of a religion over its beliefs and dogma in explaining its spread. In Cities of God, he seems to give more importance to belief than before. This is a useful corrective, as belief often helps explain the emphasis on relationship and practical usefulness in a religion. Second, Stark believes that the Gentile mission was not all that successful at first and that most early Christians were Jewish Diaspora converts. He gives more evidence for his theory here, but anyone looking to test the theory will still have to look elsewhere for fuller discussions.
All told, Stark makes some good arguments, fails to prove others but raises good questions in the process, and leaves the reader with more knowledge and insight than when he or she started.
on September 25, 2007
In his "Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome" (2006), Rodney Stark chastise historians for not using "quantitative methods" (page 22). In his conclusion, Stark quotes the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. as having said: "almost all important [historical] questions are important precisely because they are not susceptible to quantitative answers," then Stark scathingly replied: "Such arrogance thrilled many of his listeners, as clever nonsense so often does. For others it prompted reflections on how someone so poorly trained had risen so high in the profession of history. In truth, many of the real significant historical questions demand quantitative answers" (page 209). In his "Cities of God," Stark gives us quantitative answers, he quotes a lot of data, making use of statistical models, and makes arguments which on the surface appear to be persuasive, if not down right convincing.
But what of his own numbers? It is interesting to note that the population figures which Stark gives in his "Cities of God" (2006) significantly differ from those figures in his earlier book "The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History" (1996). In the following list, I will give the population figure for "The Rise of Christianity" (1996) first, followed by the population figure given in his "Cities of God" (2006). All figures are for the period of 100 AD. All figures are from Stark's own books! According to Stark, the city of Rome had a population of 650,000 in his 1996 book, but only 450,000 in his 2006 book; Alexandria went from 400,000 to 250,000; Antioch from 150,000 to 100,000; Carathage from 90,000 to 100,000; Sardis stayed the same at 100,000; Smyrna went from 75,000 to 90,000; Athens from 30,000 to 75,000; Edessa from 80,000 to 75,000; Nisibis from 80,000 to 67,000; Cadis (Gadir) from 100,000 to 65,000; Syracuse from 80,000 to 60,000; Ephesus from 200,000 to 51,000; Corinth from 100,000 to 50,000; Memphis from 90,000 to 50,000; Caesarea Maritima remained the same at 45,000; Cordova the same at 45,000; Damascus the same at 45,000; Autun the same at 40,000; Pergamum from 120,000 to 40,000; Apamea from 125,000 to 37,000; Salamis stayed the same at 35,000; London from 40,000 to 30,000; and Milan from 40,000 to 30,000. It is very odd that the same author is willing to give significantly different population figures for the same cities during the same period. Nor did Stark give any explanation as to why the numbers are different.
On page 34, in his "Cities of God," Stark asks the question: "Did Rome have a million residents or only 200,000?" and in footnote 31, Stark cites: "Parkin, 1992; Russell, 1958." In "Demography and Roman Society" (1992), Tim Parkin writes: "For the city of Rome itself, a figure of between 750,000 and 1 million seems right" (page 5). And in a footnote he adds that "Russell (1958) 63-68, (1985) 8-25, however, gives a figure as ludicrously low as under 200,000" (page 162). These authors justify Stark's question: "Did Rome have a million residents or only 200,000?" (page 34). But on page 52, in his "Cities of God," Stark gives the population of Rome as 450,000, but he has no footnote this time, and he doesn't tell us how he reached his decision. He doesn't give any justification. So did he pick 450,000 out of thin air?
Sir Peter Hall, in his "Cities in Civilization" (1998), writes: "Precisely how big was ancient Rome ... historians must painstakingly make their deductions from what they know about numbers of houses and apartment blocks and the housing densities within them, volumes of water piped into the city, recipients of the grain dole, seating capacities of theaters and amphitheaters: all very indirect, and so potentially unreliable. Unsurprisingly, the estimates vary wildly, from the 250,000 of Ferdinand Lot to the 1,487,560 (plus slaves) of Giuseppe Lugli; but the great majority, for dates extending from the late Republican Age to the fourth century AD, fall in the range from three-quarters of a million to around one and a quarter million, most of them close to one million" (page 621). Thus Hall claims that the "great majority" of scholars opt for a figure between 750,000 and 1,250,000. In 1996, Rodney Stark put the population of the city of Rome just below the minimum (of the "great majority") at 650,000, but in 2006 he lowers his estimate even lower to 450,000.
Why does Stark claim that the "estimated" population in Rome was 650,000 in one book (1996), only to estimate it at 450,000 in another book (2006)? Why did he lower his estimate of Ephesus from 200,000 to 51,000? Are these numbers random, or was their some method to determine them? And how can his own estimate be almost ¼ of his previous estimate? Was Stark hoping that no one would compare his two books? I'm at a loss to understand him. Furthermore, he made such a big deal in his book (pages 15-23) as to how he was so much better than most historians in that unlike them, he actually follows the scientific method and understands how to use "quantitative methods" (page 22). He boasts that "the entire basis of this book is to assemble reliable and pertinent facts" (page 17).
Many years ago, I read Stark's article entitled "Epidemics, Networks and the Rise of Christianity" published in the journal "Semea" (56 :159-175), when it first came out. And because of that, I waited eagerly for his book, "The Rise of Christianity," to be published (1996). I'm no specialist, but I thought highly of his argument, it seemed well thought out and well presented. He writes well and presents lots of data (which, by its nature, is hard to corroborate), and so he is very persuasive. But anyone, even I, can compare numbers. The figure 650,000 is not that same as 450,000; and 200,000 is not the same as 51,000. Stark had an obligation to his readers to explain his methodology and why he is presenting new figures. He didn't do so, and I'm afraid that this failure makes it hard for me to trust his other quantitative analyses. Perhaps in some future book, he will explain his methodology and why it was necessary for him to alter his population figures from his 1996 to his 2006 book. But until then, I cannot recommend his research.