125 of 131 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Revelatory. Really. Read This.
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...
Published on July 17, 2004 by Paul Frandano
37 of 51 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars thought-provoking, though not completely convincing
Rodney Stark sets out to give us a "revsionist" view of the emergence and eventual triumph of Christianity-no "irrationality" here, no credulity, no superstition, all of it a clean and rational affair. As a matter of fact, the early Christians had any reason to be proud of themselves: they were taking part in a successful enterprise. This of course...
Published on May 18, 2003 by Christian Wetzel
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125 of 131 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Revelatory. Really. Read This.,
This review is from: The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (Paperback)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.
47 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars New Tools for the Historian,
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This review is from: The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (Paperback)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.
86 of 103 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ye shall know the truth.,
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This review is from: The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (Paperback)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.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Rise of Christianity,
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.
43 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Perfect Answer to Charles Freeman's "Closing of the Western Mind",
In short--of what use are the philosophical and "rationalist" traditions that Mr. Freeman celebrates when you're dead? It was Christian "superstition" that kept many of their pagan neighbors alive. But this is devastating to Mr. Freeman's thesis, that something great was lost with the rise of Christianity for which there was no suitable substitute, and that the only explanation for Christianity's rise is political manipulation and bullying. I highly recommend Mr. Stark's book as a complement to Mr. Freeman's for the sake of scholarly balance.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Life-changing book,
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent brief work for anyone with a brain.,
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Needs more empirical evidence,
However, his main argument, that the rise of Christianity can be attributed to better survival rates amongst Christian communities during epidemics because they cared more for their sick, needs much more evidence. Firstly there needs to be more proof that pagans DID NOT care for their sick, and secondly there needs to be more evidence that primitive methods of caring for the sick actually worked. The author states:
"Modern medical experts believe that conscientious nursing without any medications could cut the mortality rate by two-thirds or even more."
But this statement is not referenced or backed up by any footnote pointing to any actual research in this area. Yet it is the most important contention in the whole book, on which all the other numerical estimates rely!
Does anybody know any other researchers that have looked further into this topic or offered a critique of this work?
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Sociology of Virtue,
How were Christians more virtuous than the pagans of later Roman times? Well Christian social outreach did a lot for the marginalized; in fact, the Roman welfare system paled in comparison to that offered by Christians. This greater outreach meant that Christians were able to spread their faith more; the faith in action made a compelling argument for its validity.
The place of the marginalized is important here. Applying his work among the Moonies and other new religious movements, Stark argues that Christians won converts by being out among the marginalized folk and forming relationships with them. He backs this up historically, however, by quoting Church Fathers such as Tertullian, who notes that Christians were doing just that. Borrowing from choice theory, Stark writes that one of the reasons for converting to Christianity was because not converting cost a whole lot more than converting; that is, if the pagans don't like you, why not become a Christian when the Christians do like you? It makes total sense.
One caveat, though, is the lack of discussion about theory and method. I wonder how accurate it is to use contemporary sociological theory to describe the events and societal developments of the past; I wonder (openly - it is something I would like to discuss) about how the method of applying current discoveries to the past may work for good and/or for ill. Hence, my rating of 4 rather than 5 stars: a more in-depth discussion of theory and method would have been appreciated.
Of course, no historical or sociological study ever stands alone. Stark has written a fascinating study of early Christianity and how it may have won over the Roman empire that is really quite compelling and well worth reading. Virtue may still have a place in the larger society.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent and convincing,
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The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Cent... by Rodney Stark (Paperback - May 9, 1997)