“How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries” is the self-proclaimed topic of Rodney Stark’s book, “The Rise of Christianity.” In it, he takes aim at debunking many modern assumptions about the early movement while pulling together ancient as well as modern evidence to build “A fresh, blunt and highly persuasive account of how the West was won for Jesus,” according to Newsweek.
He applies modern discoveries in sociology to uncover the likely “path to victory” Christianity took to the top, from a Middle Eastern cult of 110 followers at Pentecost to Rome’s official religion in the late 300s and beyond to dominance in Europe and the West at large. Stark has a rich history in research of newer religious movements, from Mormonism to Moonies, for which more ample data is available. He applies the findings from modern religious movements to the founding of Christianity and then looks to see if the evidence supports similar trends then. Looking inward at Scripture and outward at history, archaeology and sociology he’s able to reconstruct a compelling case for each of his main thesis.
“The Rise of Christianity” is an incredible read for anyone who loves history, sociology, statistics, and digging into the roots of our faith. Especially interesting will be some of these challenging topics:
- Was the high rate of growth seen in Acts historical or exaggeration? (Stark argues historical, given what we know about the growth of new religions in modern society.)
- Did the faith appeal most to the poor and disenfranchised or the wealthy and powerful? (Stark brings evidence to bear that the wealthy made up a disproportionately large sector of the early Church despite modern assumptions.)
- Was the mission to the Jews a failure? (Stark argues it was an unprecedented success and that Jews made up the bulk of early Christians for the first three centuries.)
- What role did women play in the early Church and its growth? (Stark brings to the table a wealth of evidence that Christian women enjoyed freedom, protection and power unlike anything pagan societies offered, increasing the appeal to women and attracting even more to the cause.)
- Was early Christianity a largely urban or countryside phenomenon? (Against many scholars, Stark shares the evidence that Church movements exploded in cities and slowly filtered into the countryside, not the reverse.)
- Why did martyrdom seem to have a special appeal within Christian circles? (Stark brings all the reasons out why martyrdom resulted from a rational choice by believers rather than a pathological illness as many sociologists argue.)
- How did epidemics help catapult the obscure movement to the forefront of Roman society? (One of the more surprising sections, as we tend to see epidemics as uncommon and unhelpful but they played a pivotal role in the rise of Christianity!)
“The Rise of Christianity” is both an enlightening read and a challenging one, taking a deeper look at the first centuries of the faith. It might challenge age-old yet non-biblical beliefs (like “Christianity only takes root among the poor and uneducated” and “Men have always been the primary faith leaders in Christianity”) while also filling in the necessary context to understanding why God would send his Son precisely at that time in human history. I suggest the read for anyone who wants a unique look into history and human nature to get a clearer picture of the Jesus movement and how it found incredible relevance 2000 years ago and remains relevant two millennia later.
“The Rise of Christianity” is by Rodney Stark, published by Harper Collins and copyrighted by Princeton University Press in 1996. It can be purchased on Harper Collins website (Here for $16.99).