Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force ....


This "fresh, blunt, and highly persuasive account of how the West was won—for Jesus" (Newsweek) is now available in paperback. Stark's provocative report challenges conventional wisdom and finds that Christianity's astounding dominance of the Western world arose from its offer of a better, more secure way of life.

"Compelling reading" (Library Journal) that is sure to "generate spirited argument" (Publishers Weekly), this account of Christianity's remarkable growth within the ...

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This "fresh, blunt, and highly persuasive account of how the West was won—for Jesus" (Newsweek) is now available in paperback. Stark's provocative report challenges conventional wisdom and finds that Christianity's astounding dominance of the Western world arose from its offer of a better, more secure way of life.

"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 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. Greeley, University of Chicago).

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The rise of Christianity from the death of Jesus to the establishment of the first Christian church is often portrayed as a rapid, almost seamless, movement in history. Sociologist Stark (Theory of Religion) here ponders why Christianity succeeded as it did in the early years of the first century. 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. Among his findings is that the key factors in Christianity's success included the desire on the part of its members to assimilate into the dominant culture, the conversion of pagan men through intermarriage with Christian women and the commitment to voluntary martyrdom. Stark's conclusion that the rapid rise of early Christianity was due mainly to high fertility rates and social policies rather than to faith in the messianic message of Jesus is likely to generate spirited argument. (July)
Library Journal
Theories abound regarding the growth of Christianity in its first 500 yearsthat 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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060677015
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/28/1997
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 151,737
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Meet the Author

Rodney Stark is the Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University. His thirty books on the history and sociology of religion include The Rise of Christianity, Cities of God, For the Glory of God, Discovering God, and The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. Stark received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Conversion and Christian Growth

Finally, all questions concerning the rise of Christianity are one: How was it done? How did a tiny and obscure messianic movement from the edge of the Roman Empire dislodge classical paganism and become the dominant faith of Western civilization? Although this is the only question, it requires many answers--no one thing led to the triumph of Christianity.

The chapters that follow will attempt to reconstruct the rise of Christianity in order to explain why it happened. But in this chapter I will pose the question in a more precise way than has been done. First, I shall explore the arithmetic of growth to see more clearly the task that had to be accomplished. What is the minimum rate of growth that would permit the Christian movement to become as large as it must have been in the time that history allows? Did Christianity grow so rapidly that mass conversions must have taken place--as Acts attests and every historian from Eusebius to Ramsay MacMullen has believed? Having established a plausible growth curve for the rise of Christianity, I will review sociological knowledge of the process by which people convert to new religions in order to infer certain requirements concerning social relations between Christians and the surrounding Greco-Roman world. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the legitimate uses of social scientific theories to reconstruct history in the absence of adequate information on what actually occurred.

Since this book is a work of both history and social science, I have written it for a nonprofessional audience. In this way I can make sure that the social scienceis fully accessible to historians of the early church, meanwhile preventing social scientists from becoming lost amidst obscure historical and textual references.

Before I proceed, however, it seems appropriate to discuss whether an attempt to explain the rise of Christianity is not somewhat sacrilegious. If, for example, I argue that the rise of Christianity benefited from superior fertility or from an excess of females who made possible high rates of exogamous marriage, am I not, thereby, attributing sacred achievements to profane causes? I think not. Whatever one does or does not believe about the divine, obviously God did not cause the world to become Christian, since that remains to be achieved. Rather, the New Testament recounts human efforts to spread the faith. No sacrilege is entailed in the search to understand human actions in human terms. Moreover, I do not reduce the rise of Christianity to purely "material" or social factors. Doctrine receives its due--an essential factor in the religion's success was what Christians believed.

The Arithmetic of Growth

Studies of the rise of Christianity all stress the movement's rapid growth, but rarely are any figures offered. Perhaps this reflects the prevalence among historians of the notion, recently expressed by Pierre Chuvin, that "ancient history remains wholly refractory to quantitative evaluations" (1990:12). Granted, we shall never discover "lost" Roman census data giving authoritative statistics on the religious composition of the empire in various periods. Nevertheless, we must quantify--at least in terms of exploring the arithmetic of the possible--if we are to grasp the magnitude of the phenomenon that is to be explained. For example, in order for Christianity to have achieved success in the time allowed, must it have grown at rates that seem incredible in the light of modern experience? If so, then we may need to formulate new social scientific propositions about conversion. If not, then we have some well-tested propositions to draw upon. What we need is at least two plausible numbers to provide the basis for extrapolating the probable rate of early Christian growth. Having achieved such a rate and used it to project the number of Christians in various years, we can then test these projections against a variety of historical conclusions and estimates.

For a starting number, Acts 1:14-15 suggests that several months after the Crucifixion there were 120 Christians. Later, in Acts 4:4, a total of 5,000 believers is claimed. And, according to Acts 21:20, by the sixth decade of the first century there were "many thousands of Jews" in Jerusalem who now believed. These are not statistics. Had there been that many converts in Jerusalem, it would have been the first Christian city, since there probably were no more than twenty thousand inhabitants at this time--J. C. Russell (1958) estimated only ten thousand. As Hans Conzelmann noted, these numbers are only "meant to render impressive the marvel that here the Lord himself is at work" (1973:63). Indeed, as Robert M. Grant pointed out, "one must always remember that figures in antiquity . . . were part of rhetorical exercises" (1977:7-8) and were not really meant to be taken literally. Nor is this limited to antiquity. In 1984 a Toronto magazine claimed that there were 10,000 Hare Krishna members in that city. But when Irving Hexham, RaymondF. Currie, and Joan B. Townsend (1985) checked on the matter, they found that the correct total was 80.

Origen remarked, "Let it be granted that Christians were few in the beginning" (Against Celsus 3.10,1989 ed.), but how many would that have been? It seems wise to be conservative here, and thus I shall assume that there were 1,000 Christians in the year 40. 1 shall qualify this assumption at several later points in the chapter.

Now for an ending number. As late as the middle of the third century, Origen admitted that Christians made up "just a few" of the population. Yet only six decades later, Christians were so numerous that Constantine found it expedient to embrace the church. This has caused many scholars to think that something really extraordinary, in terms of growth, happened in the latter half of the third century (cf. Gager 1975). This may explain why, of the few numbers that have been offered in the literature, most are for membership in about the year 300.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Ch. 1 Conversion and Christian Growth 3
Ch. 2 The Class Basis of Early Christianity 29
Ch. 3 The Mission to the Jews: Why It Probably Succeeded 49
Ch. 4 Epidemics, Networks, and Conversion 73
Ch. 5 The Role of Women in Christian Growth 95
Ch. 6 Christianizing the Urban Empire: A Quantitative Approach 129
Ch. 7 Urban Chaos and Crisis: The Case of Antioch 147
Ch. 8 The Martyrs: Sacrifice as Rational Choice 163
Ch. 9 Opportunity and Organization 191
Ch. 10 A Brief Reflection on Virtue 209
Notes 217
Bibliography 223
Index 243
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 8, 2009

    Great, thorough book

    I really enjoyed this book, thought it was great and definitely would recommend it to others. I would also pretty much agree with the first reviewer of this book, including his statement that the author's knowledge of Christian history is "quite good" and about the "constant reference" to other historians. The latter was a reassurance to me that the author had studied the subject thoroughly. And I also very much agreed with the book author that "...we must be very cautious not to fill the blanks with fantasy and science fiction."(pg 26) But concerning the first reviewer's comment that Christian "growth was gradual", the spirit of the writing gives you the opposite opinion. As the author states: "In the of rate of growth, it probably did not. But because of the rather extraordinary features of exponential curves, this probably was a period of 'miraculous-seeming' growth in terms of absolute numbers."(pg 7) One more point from the first reviewer that I thought missed the spirit of the writing was that "membership in a Christian community was more of being born into it rather that to new converts". You don't get that distinct of a point when reading the book. While the author doesn't go into "personal faith" (and I don't see how he could've), he explains intricately that Christian conversions were extremely more successful with close, personnal relationships and family members. The book still shows people being converted, not some brain-washed member or citizen of a Christianized community. But otherwise, the book came across to me, especially as I pondered it after reading the whole thing, was that the author had much respect and admiration for early Christianity: The vast improvement in Christians' quality of lives, health, rules of conduct, respect for women, respect for the unborn, etc. I did disagree on a few theological points of the author's (Here are just a couple: 1. there probably weren't mass-conversions to Christianity--ever heard of Billy Graham? and 2. "Both Peter and Paul sanctioned marriage between Christians and pagans" See I Cor.6:14-15), but I chalk that up to him maybe not being a born-again Christian! Outside of those, I thought most of his arguments and history were correct. Read and see for yourself.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 26, 2000

    Sociologist corrects misconceptions about early Christianity

    This book is easy reading, and makes some valuable points. I highly recommend it. It should be noted that Stark is a sociologist, not a historian. The intent of the book is to show that modern sociological methods and observations can shed new insights on the past, and can discover clues that traditional historians have missed. Throughout the book Stark gives some good basic discussion of sociological methodology, making sure the reader recognizes its empirical basis. As such, the book almost works as an introduction to sociology in general. Nonetheless, Stark's knowledge of early Christian history is quite good, and he makes constant reference to the opinions reputable historians. Stark takes a lot of time answering the question of how fast did the Christian community grow during its first three centuries. He soundly concludes that the growth was gradual, and not unlike the growth observed in modern sects. As the opinion that Christianity experienced a burst of rapid growth is common among historians, Stark goes to great depth to refute it, and to give the contrary opinion a firm foundation. Firmly establishing this opinion is essential to the remainder of the book, which examines the sources for this growth; and if the growth rate was modest, its sources would not have needed to be out of the ordinary. He evaluates the social climate of the time, dealing in the problems of ancient city life, the role of women, wealth and poverty, and more, each in its own chapter. Attention is also given to the early Christians strong respect for life in all respects, opposing abortion, war, and the execution of criminals. Further attention is also given to the fact that early Christianity was not so much a 'personal faith', but membership in a community. The community established rules of conduct, and duties for each individual. Stark argues that Christian ethics directly equated to a better quality of life, longer lifespans and an increase in offspring. He contrasts this with the decline of Roman society at large. Stark notes that much of the growth of early Christianity was due to children being born into it, rather than to new converts. Still, Stark makes a detailed analysis of how and why new converts were attracted to the movement, and what social classes they came from. This book intentionally avoids any discussion as to the truth or falsity of Christian doctrines, and doesn't discuss any theological controversies. The important issue merely being how those doctrines influenced believers actions. Stark is very careful not to offend anyone, and rarely strays from the point he is making. Upon finishing the book, I still had no firm idea as to Stark's own religious opinions and biases. Stark's conclusions are few, modest and convincing. They are radical only because they reject several widely held misconceptions. I found the book to be valuable reading. In fact, it is likely the single book I have most recommended to others.

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    Posted August 25, 2010

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