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Cities of God
Missions and Methods
New accounts of early Christianity are everywhere. A book claiming that Jesus got married, fathered children, and died of old age has sold millions of copies. Bookstores are bursting with 'new,' more 'enlightened' scriptures said to have been wrongly suppressed by the early church fathers. Often referred to as Gnostic gospels, these texts purport to have been written by a variety of biblical characters—Mary Magdalene, St. James, St. John, Shem, and even Didymus Jude Thomas, self-proclaimed twin brother of Christ. Meanwhile, a group calling itself the Jesus Seminar receives national media attention each year as it meets to further reduce the 'authentic' words spoken by Jesus to an increasingly slim compendium of wise sayings.
But is any of this true? How can we know? Presumably, by assembling and evaluating the appropriate evidence. Unfortunately, far too many historians these days don't believe in evidence. They argue that since absolute truth must always elude the historian's grasp, 'evidence' is inevitably nothing but a biased selection of suspect 'facts.' Worse yet, rather than dismissing the entire historical undertaking as impossible, these same people use their disdain for evidence as a license to propose all manner of politicized historical fantasies or appealing fictions on the grounds that these are just as 'true' as any other account. This is absurd nonsense. Reality exists and history actually occurs. The historian's task is to try to discover as accurately as possible what took place. Of course, we can never possess absolute truth, but that still must be the ideal goal that directshistorical scholarship. The search for truth and the advance of human knowledge are inseparable: comprehension and civilization are one.
Fortunately, even if the complete truth eludes us, some historical accounts have a far higher probability than others of being true, depending on the available evidence. And it is in pursuit of more and better evidence that I have returned to the history of the early church. The chapters that follow present many revisions and reinterpretations of early Christian history. But the really 'new' contribution is to test these conclusions by analyzing quantitative data.
Early Christianity was primarily an urban movement. The original meaning of the word pagan (paganus) was "rural person," or more colloquially "country hick." It came to have religious meaning because after Christianity had triumphed in the cities, most of the rural people remained unconverted. Therefore, in the chapters that follow, the thirty-one cities of the empire having populations of at least 30,000 as of the year 100 are the basis for formulating and testing claims about the early church, based on quantified measures of various features of these cities. When was a Christian congregation established in each city? Which cities were missionized by Paul? Which were the port cities? Did a city have a substantial Diasporan Jewish community? Where did paganism remain strongest, longest? Where were the Gnostic teachers and movements located? These quantitative measures make it possible to discover, for example, whether the Gnostics were clustered in the more Christian or in the more pagan cities.
It is in this spirit that missions and methods are the principal topics of this opening chapter. Nevertheless, the relatively brief quantitative aspects of this and subsequent chapters are very secondary to, and embedded in, large historical concerns.
Missions and Monotheism
Since earliest days, humans have been exchanging religious ideas and practices. For millennia there was nothing special about the spread of religion; it diffused through intergroup contact in the same way as did new ways to weave or to make pottery. Even with the advent of cities, religion did not become the focus of any special effort to proselytize. From time to time, a priest or two probably pursued new followers, and individuals often recommended a particular god or rite to others. But since no one supposed that there was only one valid religion or only one true God, there were no missionaries.1 Nor was there really such a thing as conversion.
In a religious context populated by many gods, to accept a new god usually does not involve discarding an old one. As the celebrated Arthur Darby Nock pointed out, within polytheism new gods are merely "supplements rather than alternatives."2 Nock suggested that the word conversion is stretched beyond any useful meaning if it is applied to such relatively trivial actions. Instead, the term should be reserved for the formation of a new commitment across the boundaries of major religious traditions. For example, a shift from polytheism to Judaism, to Christianity, or to Islam is a conversion. So is a shift from one of the monotheistic traditions to another, or (rarely) from one of these traditions to polytheism. However, a shift in patronage from one god of a pantheon to another is not conversion, but reaffliation. The same is true of shifts within the boundaries of a monotheistic tradition, as from Methodist to Baptist, from Orthodox to Reformed, or from Sunni to Shi'ite—these too are acts of reaffliation. In contrast, missionaries are those who seek converts, who attempt to get others to shift from one tradition to another.3 Some people serve as part-time, 'amateur' missionaries. Others are full-time 'professionals.' But either sort of missionary is produced only within monotheism.
Even so, not just any sort of monotheism produces missionaries, especially the rank-and-file missionaries on which real success depends. For example, once Christianity became safely ensconced as the Roman state church, its missionary activities very rapidly decayed.4 Likewise, what probably was the first-ever appearance of monotheism—in Egypt during the thirteenth century bce*—did not produce rank-and-file missionaries, and probably very few sincere professional missionaries either. Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (who adopted the name Akhenaten) attempted to establish worship of an invisible, omnipotent One True God. But he did it by edict and force—by creating a self-sufficient, state-supported religion and by attempting to suppress the other temples. Upon his death, the priests of the discarded gods . . .Cities of God. Copyright © by Rodney Stark. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.