I’ve been reading Rodney Stark’s book, The Rise of Christianity. I came to it with high expectations. Many people have lauded it. But I found it both an intriguing, but also frustrating read.
Stark is a sociologist and in the book he uses sociological research and mo dels to explore and explain the dramatic rise of Christianity in the first three centuries AD. In chapter one he discusses figures for the rise of Christianity. Already alarm bells start ringing.
He assumes a start figure of 1,000 for Christian numbers – somewhat smaller than the biblical figure of 3,120 (120 plus 3,000) given in Acts 1 and 2, claiming that this was a literary exaggeration. I can accept that 3,000 converts on the day of Pentecost is an approximation, but no evidence is offered for downgrading it so dramatically. I have seen more than one person quote Stark’s conclusions that six million people were Christians by 300 AD. But in fact Stark offers no historical evidence for this; nor in fact does he claim it is a correct figure. Instead he extrapolates growth rates of 30, 40 and 50 percent per decade. Thirty percent produces a figure that all historians would regard as too small while 50 produces a figure that all would regard as too large. Stark’s point is simply that Christianity grew at roughly 40 percent – clearly a remarkable growth rate.
Chapters two and three epitomise all that is suspect about Stark’s approach. Chapter two argues that Christianity was not a lower-class or marginalised movement and, if anything, drew most from elites. But no historical evidence is offered (and the evidence of 1 Corinthians 1 dismissed). Instead the argument is based on sociological research of religious conversions in eighteenth and nineteenth century America. A similar technique of applying modern analogues to the first century is used in chapter three. Here Stark argues that the Christian mission to the Jews was successful well into the fourth and fifth centuries AD. Again this is not based on historical evidence, but on parallels with the rise of Reform Judaism in the nineteenth century.
Stark may be right that Christianity was socially variegated with an above average proportion of higher status people and he may be right that Christianity attracted many Hellenised Jews of the Diaspora. But he cannot demonstrate that this is anything more than speculation.
Chapters four and five are more compelling. But what is striking about these chapters is they offer more historical evidence, both from Christian and pagan sources. Here Stark argues that Christianity grew because of its response to epidemics (more of this below) and because it gave women higher status and produced higher fertility rates. Men outnumbered women in the Roman empire, largely due to female infanticide and mortality during abortions. In the church, however, women outnumbered men because Christians rejected infanticide and abortion, and because more women converted. (Stark provides plenty of compelling historical evidence of these claims.) As a result, fertility rates among Christians were higher, contributing to an increase in the proportion of Christians in empire.
To chart the urban expansion of Christianity (chapter six), Stark scores cities 2, 1 or 0 depending on whether they had a church in 100, 200 and 300 AD. You do not need to be an historian to realise this is a blunt instrument. Not only are the time periods long, but it cannot distinguish between a church of 10 and a church of 1,000, nor between a growing church and declining church. It may be the best we can do given the lack of census data or denominational records, but the conclusions that Stark draws on this foundation must be seen as at best speculative and at worst useless. But then his chapter on urban life, drawing mainly on other writers, is an excellent and illuminating account of the filth and of urban life in the first centuries AD.
My methodological conclusion is that sociological s are helpful in explaining historical data, but we should be wary of allowing them to substitute for historical data – especially when this involves applying them across centuries of time and in different cultural contexts. In other words, where Stark applies sociological s to explain historical data, his book is full of insight, but watch out for those points where he substitutes sociological s for an absence of historical data.
But let me end on a more positive note.
Stark’s analysis of Christians’ responses to epidemics is instructive and inspiring. Stark claims that two widespread and ly epidemics, on the mid-second century and one in the mid-third century, played a significant role in the spread of Christianity for the following reasons:
1. Christians cared for one another, leading to greater survival rates. This in turn led to an increased proportion of Christians in urban centres which meant more people’s lives intersected with networks of Christians at a time when traditional social bonds were disrupted by the epidemics.
2. Christians cared for non-Christians, bringing these non-believers into the sphere of Christian influence.
3. Christians stayed to care for others while pagan elites fled which, combined with paganism inability to protect its adherence from illness, exposed the bankruptcy of pagan religion. Stark cites a number of pagan sources complaining about the good reputation Christians were gaining.
Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.’ (1 Peter 2:11-12)
Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the nt Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (Princeton University Press/Harper Collins, 1996/1997).