About a year or so ago, I was devouring anything I could find online with Tim Keller‘s name on it. As such, I came across a video on YouTube where he was discussing the difference between a “moral performance narrative” and a “grace narrative.” In it, he mentioned the book, “The Rise of Christianity” by Rodney Stark. I bought it off of Amazon but only recently had the time to pick it up and read it.
Stark’s “Rise of Christianity” isn’t a new book; it was published in 1996. As I have admitted in many of my other posts for A Clear Lens, I am enamored with history and passionately encourage other Christians to study, in particular, church history. Yet, I will admit that some history books can be a bit dry and, shall we say, academic.
However, Stark’s “Rise of Christianity” is not a dry read. He presents the information in a manner that’s very accessible to readers. What makes the book so engaging is that he does not approach the subject from the perspective of a historian or a theologian. Applying his discipline in sociology to historical documents and archaeological finds from the early Christian church gives the work a fresh perspective, and what Stark ends up postulating is nothing short of eye-popping.
Early in the second chapter, he eliminates the idea that early Christians were all “illiterate sheepherders” or a “proletarian mass movement.” In fact, he points out that there is, “…a consensus among New Testament historians that Christianity was based in the middle and upper classes.” He also details how and why early, educated pagans converted to Christianity by using modern statistics.
Another captivating point that Stark brings up is that the idea of the “Christian Mission to the Jews” as a failure isn’t really true. In fact, Stark suggests that it was probably a success.
Stark found a riveting parallel between the emancipated Jews of the nineteenth century and the Hellenized Jews of the first and second centuries. He suggests that both communities felt marginalized: no longer accepted as Jews, but not really assimilated as Gentiles, either. Stark proposes that Christianity allowed Hellenized Jews to maintain a sort of “cultural continuity”, resolving the “contradiction” being of both Jewish and Greek culture.
As Stark states, “…if we look at these ‘two cultural faces’ of early Christianity, it seems clear that its greatest appeal would have been for those to whom each face mattered: the Jews of the diaspora.”
“Rise of Christianity” also details how ancient women were given higher status in Christian circles than in pagan circles, particularly when it came to the issue of child marriage. Stark points out that pagans were “…three times as likely as Christians to be married before age 13” and that, “…48 percent of Christian females had not wed before age 18.”
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. He also examines the roles that the smallpox and measles epidemics had on the Roman Empire, as well as martyrdom. Yet he ultimately concludes that,
“…it was the religion’s particular doctrines that permitted Christianity to be among the most sweeping and successful revitalization movements in history. And it was the way these doctrines took on actual flesh, the way the directed organizational actions and individual behavior, that led to the rise of Christianity.”
This book is such a captivating read that I really had a hard time keeping myself from listing all of the points he makes. I highly suggest anyone interested in Christian history pick up this book. It was an engaging read, very informative and not too dry.