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The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History [Hardcover]

Rodney Stark
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

13 May 1996

The idea that Christianity started as a clandestine movement among the poor is a widely accepted notion. Yet it is one of many myths that must be discarded if we are to understand just how a tiny messianic movement on the edge of the Roman Empire became the dominant faith of Western civilization. In a fast-paced, highly readable book that addresses beliefs as well as historical facts, Rodney Stark brings a sociologist's perspective to bear on the puzzle behind the success of early Christianity. He comes equipped not only with the logic and methods of social science but also with insights gathered firsthand into why people convert and how new religious groups recruit members. He digs deep into the historical evidence on many issues--such as the social background of converts, the mission to the Jews, the status of women in the church, the role of martyrdom--to provide a vivid and unconventional account of early Christianity.

The author plots the most plausible curve of Christian growth from the year 40 to 300. By the time of Constantine, Christianity had become a considerable force, with growth patterns very similar to those of modern-day successful religious movements. An unusual number of Christian converts, for example, came from the educated, cosmopolitan classes. Because it offered a new perspective on familiar concepts and was not linked to ethnicity, Christianity had a large following among persons seeking to assimilate into the dominant culture, mainly Hellenized Jews. The oversupply of women in Christian communities--due partly to the respect and protection they received--led to intermarriages with pagans, hence more conversions, and to a high fertility rate. Stark points out, too, the role played by selflessness and faith. Amidst the epidemics, fires, and other disasters that beleaguered Greco-Roman cities, Christian communities were a stronghold of mutual aid, which resulted in a survival rate far greater than that of the pagans. In the meantime, voluntary martyrdom, especially a generation after the death of Christ, reinforced the commitment of the Christian rank and file. What Stark ultimately offers is a multifaceted portrait of early Christianity, one that appeals to practical reasoning, historical curiosity, and personal reflection.


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 262 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (13 May 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691027498
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691027494
  • Product Dimensions: 2.1 x 16.4 x 23.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,158,442 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

"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

From the Inside Flap

"This brilliant and highly provocative book will revolutionize the way people think about both biblical studies and church history."--Irving Hexham

"A provocative, insightful, challenging account. . . It is marvelous exercise in sociological imagination and a warning to those who like simple explanations."--Andrew M. Greeley


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FINALLY, all questions concerning the rise of Christianity are one: How was it done? Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and informative reading. 9 April 1999
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
Rodney Stark has applied some of today's social theories to the rise of the early Christian church. There is no need to worry about it being too complicated or complex to be interesting. Stark writes on the level that an undergraduate student in any field should be able to follow. If you are interested in the early Christian church, or even religion in general, this book is a great help.
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Amazon.com: 3.5 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
32 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Book. It Hits the Mark. 8 April 1998
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Secularization theorists beware! Stark provides an immensely satisfying theoretical exposition on the rise of Christianity and backs it up with historical data. This book is sure to aggravate the myriad of social scientists who study religion with only ad hoc theoretical frameworks and who use selective data to fit their "explanations." Many religious studies scholars will consider this book "dangerous" simply because it is rigorous and challenges their ad hoc explanations. (Isn't it ironic that intellectuals would consider ideas dangerous?!). I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in how religious organizations grow and expand. Stark's work not only explains why Christianity fared so well in its first several centuries, but helps us understand contemporary movements such as the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. This is historical social science at its best and a must read for anyone interested in the scientific study of religion and/or social movements. Bravo!!
18 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent 26 Feb 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As someone who is trained as both a theologian and a sociologist, Stark has done an excellent job in challenging assumptions (e.g., how the mission to the Jews succeeded rather than failed, how a large number of early converts actually came from the upper classes, etc.) held by many contemporary scholars of early Christianity. Hopefully, this will throw these scholars back into the historical material and have them take a second look.
9 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good work Rodney. A reader from KC 18 Sep 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Excellent book. If you want to learn about the success of Christianity in a social perspective this is the book you have to read. It connects the religious teachings of Jesus and His Church with the expansion of early (and late) Christianity.
19 of 33 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Better than other works of his? 30 Jan 2006
By S. J. Snyder - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Why?

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.
0 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The other side. 2 Sep 2008
By M. Woodruff - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Not for people who need A truth. Great for people with an open mind.
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