Customer Reviews: The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries
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on July 17, 2004
This is the mystery of two millennia, right? How does an obscure sect led by an executed convict go from less than 100 adherents to an estimated 6 million on the eve on Constantine's "conversion" in the early fourth century?
Social scientist Rodney Stark did more than puzzle: he created a set of testable hypotheses and tried, via secondary literature (he reads no ancient language and disclaims any expertise in the traditional scholarship of early church history), to probe the key issues. Along the way, he uses contemporary social science findings from demography, the sociology of small groups, the psychology of conversion, medical statistics, and every other conceptual lever he could divine to create a compelling mosaic of findings, arrayed in discrete topical chapters (each of which had a former life as a scholarly article).
Others have pointed out, as does Stark himself, that his work is a strictly scientific enterprise: his own religious views are for himself. he is a sociologist of religion. He gives respectful attention to the historical record of the early church, which consists almost exclusively of the well-known testaments from the early church -New Testament accounts, non-canonic letters and gospels, and works by Eusebius, Tertullian, and their peers. But in the end, the "miracle" of the expansion of the early church seems explicable by a number of readily understandable facts and processes.
For example, the forty percent growth rate per decade from 30 CE to 300 CE, which arithmetically gets one from 40 converts to 6 million, seems virtually miraculous - until Stark compares this rate to the growth achieved by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints - the Mormons - which in the past century has averaged just over 40 percent per decade. In separate chapters, Stark also sheds fresh light on the geographic spread of Christianity, the success - rather than the long presumed failure - of "mission to the Hebrews," the role of plagues and natural disasters as facilitators of the Christian mission, Christian conversion as an urban phenomenon, the comparative socioeconomic advantages of Christianity versus "paganism" in the "religious marketplace" of antiquity, and the "rationality" of martyrdom, the last of which contains more than a few startlingly relevant observations in the current context of terrorist martyrdom.
Throughout, the emphasis returns again and again to social networks - friends converting friends, wives converting husbands, former Jewish co-religionists converting other Jews as Christian churches establish themselves in the "Jewish Quarters" of Roman towns and cities, mercy-bound Christians staying to care for plague victims while pagans flee the pandemic.
Some chapters, needless to say, are less compelling than others. Stark's fascinating discussion the allure of Christianity to the wholly disenfranchised women of the Roman empire, and of the advantages conferred to women in the early church, stands at odds with persuasive accounts - say, those of Elaine Pagels in The Gnostic Gospels or Bart Ehrman in Lost Christianities - of the steady hostility toward the role of women in the church and in the canonic New Testament accounts.
This is a minor quibble. Stark has given us a necessary book - for believers, skeptics, pastors, and laypeople - that, in conception alone, is the stuff of genius. And - whipped cream on top - the author has serious journalistic chops, honed in a former life as a newspaperman, that make him that rare social scientist who can actually communicate his findings crystal-clearly to an intelligent reader. What results is a provocative, beautifully wrought book that sets a standard for contemporary exploration of a distant, thinly documented historical occurrence.
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VINE VOICEon August 9, 2005
I was a bit skeptical at first of Stark's proposed methodology: applying the results of modern sociological research to questions of early Christian History. But he employs this method in a very responsible way, using the sociology to generate an expectation and then checking that against the actual historical evidence to see if it is borne out. The result, I think are some real insights. Stark has done Christians a real service in helping them to understand the historical roots of their faith. It is also, I would submit, immensely practical for modern Christians to reflect on how the early Church thrived and grew in the midst of a pagan culture.
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on June 13, 2005
Rodney Stark uses a sociological perspective to reconsider the development of Christianity from the early first century until it became the dominant faith and official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. Stark, who is currently a university professor of social sciences at Baylor University, begins with the basic premise that the development of Christianity is not purely a social and political factor, but rather the product of human faith that stands up to all social phenomena: from interaction with pagan values and persecution, to the various social crises such as epidemic and political disorder. Stark writes, "Whatever one does or doesn't believe about the divine, obviously God didn't cause the world to be Christian." That the world has become Christian and will continue to be Christian depends on human effort that is based on the reflection and commitment of that Christian faith and community.

Stark states that the early Christian community gained it converts through a social network built by intimate interpersonal attachment. Interpersonal relations within the early Christian community built a strong social network that allowed the steady growth of conversion during the first centuries. In this context, it becomes important for Stark to reconsider what was the social basis of the early Christian community. Many historians and sociologists in the twentieth century claim that Christianity and all religious movements are driven by the lower social strata in a community. For Stark, this assumption is no longer accurate because of the fact that the early Christians consisted of the privileged and the middle class in the community. Christianity was pardoned by the political authority because it included members among the family, friends and relatives of the early believers. Had the early Christians consisted of merely the poor and the oppressed, the Roman authority would consider it as "a political threat, rather than simply as an illicit religion."

By explaining the fact that early Christians consisted of the privileged, Stark doesn't mean alienating the poorer class within the early community. Rather, he relativizes the assumption that most new cult and sect movements, as Christianity was, are driven by those who were poor. In addition, Stark is convinced that, whether power is held by rich or poor, all members of a religion have the same desire toward "the rewards that do not exist in this world." Moreover, it is the vision toward the other world that sustained the life of the early Christians, so that they became a solid social community.
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on December 9, 2000
A good friend of mine suggested this book, and when I read it the first time, I did it in a day. It is very readable and very intelligent. As a life-long Christian, I had never paused to think about how a new religion on one end of the Mediterranean Sea spread to the whole of the Roman world in as little as 300 years. Stark makes some very credible arguments about how this was done. The mechanisms described do not require "magic", however that does not make the result any less miraculous.
Church leaders and theologians would do well to read this book and ponder for themselves. For the thinking person who is open to arguments that actually use numbers in an intelligent way (no Bible Code here!), this is a book that offers insight into the mechanisms of church growth, the practical consequences of sexual immorality, and the positive effect of having a high value on women.
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on August 14, 2009
Let me just say that this book literally changed my life. I was in divinity school preparing to apply for PhD programs in church history when one of my professors assigned this book for my Early Christianity course. I read the book and was so moved by its trenchant observations that I immediately decided to pursue sociology instead of Church history. I applied to sociology PhD programs, got accepted to a really good one, and the rest is history. I am now a sociologist with two books of my own (Holy Mavericks was just released). So Rodney Stark's book was the sole factor behind me becoming a sociologist.
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on February 7, 1999
Accused of superstitious atheism, and persecuted to the death, early Christians overcame all challenges to overwhelm the pagan world with superior morality and ethical behavour. Rodney Stark combines historical evidence with current sociological theory to explain how. Chapters on the mission to the Jewish diaspora, the role of women in the early church, how social networks functioned during epidemics, and the rationality of martyrdom demonstrate the deeply transforming nature of the Christian religion on Greco-Roman civilization. For anyone who wonders what difference Christianity made in the beginning, and what difference it can make today, this book is a must read.
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on April 8, 2011
Rodney Stark has written an intriguing book that I enjoyed reading. His book seeks to answer the question of how a small religious sect exploded on the scene and became the dominant religion in the world in a matter of 300 years. The book was scholarly and practical at the same time. His use of demographic materials and historical references gave the article a high level of credibility.

Many of his ideas helped me see the rise of Christianity from a new perspective. For example, he says that "Constantine's conversion would better be seen as a response to the massive exponential wave in progress, not as its cause" (page 2). I have never heard of that particular perspective before. It seems that most people credit Constantine with putting the Christian faith on the map. But after thinking about it from Stark's perspective, what advantage would conversion give Constantine if Christianity was a small marginalized unimportant group. It was only because Christianity was already the driving force in the empire that Constantine saw it was advantageous to convert.

This fits well with Stark's thoughts about what it meant to actually convert to Christianity in the first three centuries. He said "conversion is not about seeking or embracing an ideology, it is about bringing one's religious behavior into alignment with that of one's friends and family members" (page 2). This follows the same principals as Constantine's conversion, but plays out at a more localized level. At some point the various family members want to "belong" and that drives their conversion more so that the tenets of theology. This has powerful implications for modern ministry.

Stark also outlined how certain societal events and attitudes affected the raise of Christianity. For example, a number of epidemics swept across the empire during the first three centuries. The response of the Christians to this was markedly different than the response of the non-Christians. Non-Christians were so afraid of catching the epidemic themselves they refused to help their own family members who got sick. Whereas Christians not only helped their own, but helped their neighbors as well. Many Christians did get sick and died as a result. But those that survived were now the heroes of the community and commanded great respect.

Stark points out that Christians also treated women better than non-Christians. As a result of this a large number of women believed in Christ. This helped the church grow. As the female Christian population grew, so did the number of Christian children being born. This in turn helped the church grow from a demographic perspective. After just a few generations the results were exponential growth.

I did find one section of Stark's article disturbing. He talked about the credibility that Christianity gained because of the willingness of people to be martyred for their faith. While I agreed with his train of thought, he then went on to conclude that an "Affluent clergy are never a match for lay preachers and impoverished ascetics in head-to-head credibility contests" (page 12). While I may agree with that statement, I did not understand how he drew this conclusion from of his discussion of martyrdom.
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on June 25, 2009
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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on July 28, 1999
This is a wonderful work. Whether you are a believer or not, this book opens up the reality of the early church which is too often shrouded in myth and leaps of faith (sorry) and puts flesh and blood on it. You can't help but come away with an even greater respect for the faith of this young church, even as Dr. Stark attempts to show that much of its growth can be explained by mathematics, social circumstances and opportunity. As a writer, my one criticism of Dr. Stark is that he is enamored with the idea of sociology as a science. It's a presonal bias of mine - I don't think that human behavior can be regarded as a science, as if we are molecules of H2O passing down a river and our collective behavior can be quantified. It's just the individualist in me: the sad truth is that we probably CAN be quantified, but I hold on to my naive notion. anyhow, not only is the paperback reasonably priced, it's a relatively quick read and will open your mind up to all sorts of possibilities and explanations that haven't been part of this society's discussions. Buy it.
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on January 6, 2005
Lively, enjoyable history written for the non-professional. The author is a sociologist rather than a historian, giving him a fresh perspective on this most interesting period of Christian history. Stark makes clear arguments and presents considerable evidence to back his point of view. The references are substantial for a book in this class.

Some believers may have mixed emotions about the book. On the positive, Stark's accounts of early Christians give reason behind their enormous success in the West. On the other hand, his attempts to reduce the miraculous behavior of early believers to a purely ration exchange is unconvincing. Many of us will continue to believe that those people had a miraculous change in their lives that allowed them to meet martyrdom without care and nurse others during plague at great risk of contracting disease.
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