Review of Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity

I recently finished a book bearing the longest title of any book I have ever read, The Rise of Christianity How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries.  This work was written by Rodney Stark, a sociologist whose expertise, by his own admission, lies in the field of social science and not in historical research.  With this disclaimer, Stark attempts to bring principles of social science to bear on the phenomenon of Christianity’s early rise, proffering explanations that are formulated by taking current sociological theories and applying them to what we know about the world in the first five centuries.

While Stark’s work is certainly groundbreaking in terms of trying to bring some reasoned principles and more than a little speculation (albeit logical speculation) to the art of reconstructing the sociological setting of early Christianity, this book demonstrates the perils of attempted interdisciplinary studies. While the study of history can only benefit from input from all relevant disciplines, there is a temptation to overemphasize the area of one’s own expertise, often at the expense of the search for truth. 

Most of Stark’s conclusions seem sound, when tested against his proffered premises.  Many of these assumptions, however, are shaky from a historical perspective, almost as if the premises were fashioned to fit the conclusion and not vice versa. For example, his characterization of early Christianity as a cult rather than a sect (both terms as defined by Stark) simply does not comport with how Christians, Jews, and Pagans all viewed this movement in the first two centuries.  First, Stark offers us definitions.  He roughly defines a cult as a new religious movement that maintains a high level of tension with mainstream society.  A sect, on the other hand, is a splinter group from an existing movement whose members are dissatisfied with the condition of that movement, but who still hold to the most basic, core beliefs of the movement.  He then goes on to explain that cults tend to form among the more wealthy and well educated parts of society, whereas sects tend to form among the less educated and less wealthy population.  So far, so good.  He then states as axiomatic that Christianity was a cult in its infancy and, therefore, must have spread through the actions of the higher echelons of society, not the lowest, contrary to the generally accepted historical view that Christianity was a movement of the common man.  While Stark’s conclusion does follow from his premises, his characterization of Christianity as a cult simply does not withstand historical scrutiny.  The fact is that early Christians saw themselves as Jews who believed the prophesied Messiah had come.  Even more orthodox Jews (in the generic use of the term) and pagans saw Christians as a disgruntled Jewish sect, not as a completely new religious movement.  If Stark is incorrect in this characterization of Christianity as a cult rather than a sect, then it must have been a movement grounded in the lower echelons of society, not the highest.

In another section, Stark takes a foray into the field of textual criticism and translation when discussing the apparently sexist interpretation of 1 Tim 3:11 by the KJV translators, making the statement “That women often served as deacons in the early church was long obscured because translators of the King James Version chose to…transform Paul’s words in 1 Timothy into a comment directed toward the wives of deacons.” The fact is, there is nothing in the Greek text of this verse that suggests that deaconesses were in view. Rather the Greek word which the KJV translators translated as wives is a word which can mean “women” or “wives.” Were there deaconesses in the early church?  Maybe. The case of Phoebe is certainly more compelling (although the primary definition of the word we sometimes translate “deacon” is “servant.” Which one did Paul intend? Who knows?). However, rather than acknowledge the uncertainty, Stark chooses to make a social value statement rather than adhere to principles of scholarship.

Don’t get me wrong. I found Stark’s work to be extremely valuable. He brings important and useful scientific insights to the task of recreating early Christianity that historians often neglect. It is only when he ventures outside of his area of expertise that he seems to fall flat for me.  With these caveats, however, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Christianity’s early history.

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