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The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History Hardcover – May 13, 1996
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
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From Library Journal
Theories abound regarding the growth of Christianity in its first 500 years?that it succeeded most among the urban poor, that women may or may not have had a place, that it bred zealotry. Stark (sociology, Univ. of Washington) considers the theories of many of the classic Christian historians (Harnack, Meeks, and Wilckens, to name a few), subjecting their historical speculations to the rigors of social science as a means of ascertaining both their validity and their value. Through this method, Stark finds Christianity to be a "revitalization movement," a response to social crises. Those crises affected the wealthy as well as the poor, female as well as male, Greek as well as Jew. In Christianity, "doctrine took on actual flesh," and all seekers not only found a place but flourished in the culturally strange (for its time) dynamic of the nonethnic Christian community. Stark provides compelling reading, adding depth and coherence to the often nebulous hyperbole of historical hypotheses. Highly recommended for ancient history and seminary/religion collections.?Sandra Collins, SLIS, Univ. of Pittsburgh
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"This book is an exciting and important addition to the literature on early Christianity. . . . It is a book of fascinating detail, yet its broad sociological assumptions will intrigue any person interested in church growth. It will challenge common theological assumptions. But, its creative and persuasive insights also will engage the thoughtful person. It is a very significant book."--Choice
"Stark provides compelling reading, adding depth and coherence to the often nebulous hyperbole of historical hypotheses."--Library Journal
". . . likely to generate spirited argument."--Publishers Weekly
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Because, in spite of his subtitle, he actually doesn't wander as far from his sociological academic works into speculative history-cum-apologetics in this book.
He uses sociological studies of current new religions, including growth patterns of the most successful ones like the Mormons, or the Unification Church, the show that Christianity could, with a steady growth rate, have become the majority of the Roman Empire by 350 or so.
That said, he does have a number of weak points to just being wrong in places.
First, in affirming the success of a "mission to the Jews," he makes assumptions about the historicity of the book of Acts that many critical scholars wouldn't accept.
Second, and related to that, he ignores one huge conflict between Paul's writings and Acts when referring to the Apostolic Council of Acts 15.
There, the apolostolic leaders decided Gentiles did not have to be circumcised, but that they did have to abstain from blood (i.e. meats with blood in them) and food sacrificed to idols. NOTE: These were not "optional"; changing these behaviors were to be required of Gentile converts. Yet, in I Corinthians, Paul tells his Gentile audience, in essence: "You want to eat meat that just came from a sacrifice? Go ahead." Now, he does say that if another person offers you meat that they tell you has been sacrificed to an idol, say no **for the sake of that person,** and not because there's anything wrong with it. (I have yet to read an evangelical bible scholar seriously wrestling with this conflict.)
Third, as far as the "marginality" of Hellenized Jews making them prime targets for Christianity, that's pretty weak. Jews had been Hellenizing, and gladly so, for 200 years before Jesus and Paul. Read I and II Maccabees, Mr. Stark, as well as re-reading Daniel. Take note of archaeological finds, such as the zodiacal symbols on the interior walls of the synagogue at Dura-Europus. Note the Greek artistic motifs at some items buried at Qumran, which the latest archaeological research states are Jewish items, not Greek or Roman.
Jews having been Hellenized for that long, any "marginality" was only that which was imposed from the outside by Gentiles, as in Alexandria. Self-marginalized Jews were a definite minority of all believers.
Fourth, he relies on the largely discredited ideas of Jack Finegan, who claimed that ossuaries from the mid-first century showed early, strong Christian influence. The names on the ossuares in question are all common (Yeshua, that's the equivalent of John in English), the alleged "crosses" often appear to simply be quarrying, carving or other non-symbolic marks, and the original examiner of these and other ossuary inscriptions and similar ones, Bagatti, has a history of dating the provenance of objects too early, by decades if not centuries.
As the flack over the James ossuary of the last two years shows, one should take a great deal of care with stone inscriptions.
Besides, if we had New Testament figures with cross signs buried in ossuaries by the mid-first century, this would seem to **undercut** Stark's sociology on how slowly the church grew in its early years. (He estimates 1,400 Christians by the year 50 and 7,500 by the year 100.)
That said, there are good points in the chapter rightly noting that women had much more freedom in early Christianity than in the pagan world (but lost it after the church became institutionalized and patriarchial), and that pagan infanticide was horrendously immoral practice.