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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 Centuries Paperback – May 9, 1997
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"Stark finds that Christians prospered the old-fashioned way: by providing a better, happier and more secure way of life . . . In the end, Stark concludes, Christians 'revitalized' the Roman Empire." -- Kenneth Woodward, "Newsweek""Stark uses contemporary social-scientific data about why people join new religious movements and how religions recruit members to investigate the formative history of Christianity . . . ["The Rise of Christianity" will] generate spirited argument." -- "Publishers Weekly""Compelling reading . . . highly recommended." -- "Library Journal""This book raises, simply and brilliantly, just the kinds of questions anyone concerned with early Christianity should ask." -- "The Christian Century""Anyone who has puzzled over Christianity's rise to dominance in the Roman Empire . . . must read [this book]. Here is theoretical brashness combined with disarming common sense, a capacious curiosity, and a most uncommon ability to tell a complicated story in simple prose." -- Wayne Meeks, Yale University"A provocative, insightful, challenging account of the rise of Christianity." -- Andrew M. Greeley, National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago
From the Publisher
"Compelling reading" (Library Journal) that is sure to "generate spirited argument" (Publishers Weekly) , this account of Christianity's remarkable growth within the Roman Empire is already the subject of much fanfare. "Anyone who has puzzled over Christianity's rise to dominance... must read it," says Yale University's Wayne A. Meeks, for The Rise of Christianity makes a compelling case for startling conclusions. Combining his expertise in social science with historical evidence and his insight into contemporary religion's appeal, Stark finds that early Christianity attracted the privileged rather than the poor, that most early converts were women or marginalized Jews -- and ultimately "that Christianity was a success because it proved those who joined it with a more appealing, more assuring, happier, and perhaps longer life" (Andrew M. Greely, University of Chicago).
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Top Customer Reviews
I found the book enlightening and intriguing, because of the parallels I could draw on from being a follower of Christ. Charity truly never fails and was the key factor that led to the growth of Christianity as whole. Although there are some areas in the book I believe Stark makes assumptions, such as being conservative and guessing that there were a 1000 Christians in the year 40. I found that most of the time he did a good job in being honest in his analyzes and even admits when he does not prove his desired outcomes. He then makes the parallel that the scientific process in discovering something new is to come up with a hypothesis.
There are many good insights to be gleaned from this book.
The first chapter looks at the rate of Christian growth throughout the first four centuries. The numbers provided are compelling, but of more value to the reader is the sociological look at the role of conversion itself. Speaking from data drawn from records kept my Mormon missionaries, it was discovered that only one out of a thousand cold calls resulted in a “conversion.” Far more impactful were those instances when missionaries made their first contact with a person in the home of a Mormon friend or relative. This, Stark reports, “results in conversion 50 percent of the time” (p. 18). Using this modern observable data, Stark imports it back in time, and operates under the assumption that Christianity likely grew numerically not based on a massive missionary effort of cold calls, but through familial and neighborly contacts.
The second chapter of the book dismantles the claim that early Christianity was a religion composed of nothing more than fringe members of society; such as outcasts, homeless folks, and petty criminals. That such claims are made at all is remarkable considering the testimony of Scripture. St. Paul was highly educated (Gal 1:14). Matthew, though a despised tax collector, (Matt. 9:9) was educated enough to pen a gospel. The Sons of Thunder owned their own fishing business (Luke 4:11). Peter apparently left enough stuff behind to lament to the Lord, “See, we have left everything and followed you” (Matt. 19:27). The Ethiopian eunuch is in charge of all the treasure of Candice the queen (Acts 8:27). Cornelius was a centurion (Acts 10:1), Lydia was a purveyor of purple goods (Acts 16:14), and Jason and others apparently had enough money to bribe/appease/sate the murderous intent of a mob (Acts 17:9).
The third chapter of the book is about the mission to the Jews. This was one of the most valuable contributions of the books, as it sheds light on the likelihood that the Christians were intentionally proselytizing to Jews, to great effect, well into the fifth century. We know that Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles (Gal. 1:16), first went to the synagogues when he visited new locales (Acts 17:1–2). There’s strong evidence to suggest many Christians did this. Stark’s look at the role of “networks” when someone converts to a new religion is valuable for our consideration. He posits that “the Hellanized Jews were the group best prepared to receive Christianity” (p. 62). Why? Because they had the least amount of baggage in the way of accepting the claims of Christianity. This might explain why many congregation today have much more success in filling their ranks with disenfranchised Christians of varying denominations rather than being filled with the “unchurched.”
The fourth chapter is a fantastic look at the role Christianity played in the midst of plagues and health crises. Whereas many people, including the great Greek physician Galen, ran away at the first sign of the plague, leaving victims to tend to themselves, it was Christianity’s insistence that we love our neighbor as ourselves that saw many people through these terrible times. This sacrificial love would have left a lasting impression on the large swaths of people they were able to nurse back to health when all others had abandoned them.
The remaining chapters weren’t nearly as valuable. Chapter five was about the role of women in Christianity, that was so terribly inconsistent it was hardly worth reading. Chapter six was about urbanization and urbanites and Christianity. Chapter seven was an extension of the previous chapter, as it look at chaos and crises that afflicted all urban areas. Chapter eight was on martyrs, where Stark fails to “rationalize” martyrdom. Chapter nine looked at organization, and Chapter ten looked at the role of virtue in Christianities growth.
The book really took a turn for the worse beginning with chapter five. Stark made a lot of logical inconsistencies. After his fabulous chapter on the proselytizing among the Jews, Stark writes the rest of the book as if the Jews were no longer a significant role in the rise of Christianity. Thus, when he speaks about the role of women in Christianity, he does a good job of showing how women were treated so much better in Christian circles than they were in pagan circles, but he never even acknowledges that the same could be said of Jewish women. In this same chapter on women, Stark says twice that men often forced women to get abortions (which more often than not killed the women themselves). He then explains how Christianity likely succeeded because abortion was morally wrong in their eyes thus resulting in a higher fertility rate. On its own, this is true. But it fails to account for two pieces of data. First, abortion was morally reprehensible among the Jews, which Stark just finished saying had a huge impact on Christian growth. Second, Stark establishes how Christianity grew because women joined first and then many years later their pagan husbands also began to identify as Christians. This may be true, but it’s inconsistent with the claim that pagan men are ordering abortions. If men are calling for rampant abortions because men had that power and authority, then a woman becoming a Christian isn’t going to change that. It logically follows that men would still be calling for abortions. The only difference is that their wives identify as Christians now, which would hardly prevent a pagan man from suddenly start acting like in accordance with Christian mores.
There is value in this book, but it’s not enough value to warrant your time or money, unless you’re a student of theology and need some extra sources to finish a paper for class, it’s probably best to spend your time reading something else.
If you’re a pastor, there a fascinating section about “free-riders” in chapter eight. It gives an evaluation of and technical wording to the problem of those members who claim to be on your church rolls but rarely if ever contribute to the life of your congregation. There were surprisingly few “free-riders” in Christianity’s rise to prominence. I think it’s possible that pastors are more concerned about fixing the “Free-Rider Problem” in their congregation than they are in proclaiming the Kingdom of God, but I could be off the mark. Still, it’s a fascinating discussion.
At best, this book is a good reference piece for the non-theological nuts and bolts of Christianity’s growth, but it’s not a book that really needs to be on your shelf, unless you’re a student, and can compare its claims to the work you’re already immersed in.