Review of "The Rise of Christianity" by Rodney Stark

I read The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Become the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries based on the recommendations from blog friends. I am not disappointed. Rise is an excellent sociological history of the first Christian centuries, beginning roughly with the martyrdoms of James, Paul, and Peter and ending with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. A must read for those interested in rising religious movements in general, Stark’s brilliant application of “rational choice” economics to the field of religion is a must-read.


The Reform Judaism of the 1st Century

Rodney Stark is a rational-choice sociologist, who views belonging as a good that people attempt to maximize. Belonging-providers can either be public or private. Examples of private providers are magicians, wizards, heelers, and pagan cults, while public providers tend to demand exclusive committment and accept some degree of alienation from society. Most of Rise of Christianity is an extremely readible exploration of this delving into many aspects of city life.

I first heard of The Rise of Christianity after a commentator noted its similarity with my blog series, Jesusism-Paulism. Because this has been mentioned before, I will now address how his 1997 book relates to 2000s series.The similar is clear, and the posts that overlap most with Stark’s book (in particular, “Love Your Enemy As You Would Have Him Love You,” “Caiaphas and Diocletian Did Know Better,” and “the Fall of Rome“) clearly share a similar orientation, though Stark’s methods and focus are different. As Rise ends with Constantine, the claims of my last two posts, “The People of the Book” and “Embrace and Extend,” are not addressed at all. Finally, while both Dr. Stark and I view women as vital to the success of Christianity, my focus on harmonious deconfliction contrasts with his more feminist interpretation.

The Rise of Christianity is an excellent book. Strongly recommended.

9 thoughts on “Review of "The Rise of Christianity" by Rodney Stark”

  1. My girlfriend's Catholic and I'm atheist – I'm always looking for books I can give her for birthday, Christmas, etc., that can bridge the divide! This looks interesting.

  2. This is the first time I herd about The rise of Christianity by Rodney stark I really thrilled while reading the short story. Even I feel the same that the author feel. Rise is an excellent sociological history of the first Christian centuries and Thank you for providing valuable information.

  3. Heelers? No other dog breed provides a sense of belonging? That's going to be a surprise to the retrievers, bull terriers and collies of my acquaintance. . .*grin*

  4. I have to admit much ignorance when it comes to the history of Christianity. I know more about the history of Islam and I was raised as a sort of Christian. Perhaps I should buy this book and put it with the rest of my “I'll read this later” stack? I have so many things to read as is, but for some reason, I keep buying more books? Maybe book buying for me has become similar to those women in NYC who can't stop buying handbags or shoes?

    Anyway, to those who have read it, was Christianity “spread by the sword?” It would seem as if Christianity was spread rather peacefully until it got to Rome. I've had discussions with Muslims who claim that Islam was spread peacefully and that Islam was very “tolerant.” The early spread of Islam was somewhat tolerant, however, I can hardly consider conquest to be “peaceful” no matter how “tolerant” it was towards Jews and Christians. This “tolerance” was probably more out of necessity than anything else. At the same time, these Muslims say “Christianity was the religion spread by the sword.” It would seem as if early Christianity was spread peacully throughout lower class social networks and later (Rome) was spread via the sword (The rest of Europe). Islam appears to have been spread by conquest but those who were conquered were not forced to convert (Just pay taxes to their Muslim overlords).

    So, what do you think? Was Christianity “spread by the sword.” Maybe? Sometimes? Yes? NO?

  5. Seerov, It depends which historical period we choose to consider. Christianity began as a very marginal religious movement that was not welcomed or tolerated in the Roman Empire. It could not possibly have been “spread by a sword” in the beginning because:
    1. It was not a political movement and early Christians were not interested in politics but in religious world views.
    2. They definitely did not have access to an army. They were not well organized and were in small numbers spread throughout different parts of the Roman Empire. Since Rome was the center of the Empire and had a large population, many of the Christians lived there, but they were a very minimal percentage of the total population of Rome and were marginal groups, who were outcasts of their own society.
    3. Christianity was not initially “spread by a sword.” The number of Christians seem to have grown over time, but the religion itself was not officially tolerated and recognized until 313.

    – If you are looking to compare it with initial spread of Islam, you must consider that Islam originated in a very different social and political environment in the 7th c. which is 600 years later.

    While Early Christianity was not “spread by a sword” to start with, later on as it became a legalized religion with appointed religious authorities, this had changed.

    Papacy in charge of a church even had its own army. Also it used assistance of secular rulers and their armies in going on to Crusades which were partially meant for winning converts and capturing the city of Jerusalem, (this was a lot later in the 11th c.) Christian warriors who went on Crusades did so for variety of personal reasons:
    – some did so because they were paid to do so, often in land or looting
    – others because they were promised a guaranteed salvation by the Pope and were convinced that it was a will of god,
    – and there were also those who were influenced by the Papacy and speeches describing their fellow Christians being marginalized and discriminated against in foreign territories who were in need of a defence.

    Papacy and secular ruler involved also had their agenda, – financial gain from looting goods, and political advances through acquiring new lands.

    – Something we must consider is that Christianity originated as religious movement, and only later it became associated with politics and armies. Islam, originally began as both religious and political movement. Muhammad was both political and religious leader to start with, while Jesus was a religious leader, or at least his first followers were exclusively religion oriented leaders (not much of actual factual data is available about the figure of Jesus, other then possibly bias literature created by early christians).

    Interestingly, around the historical time period when Islam originated, Christianity was already becoming a religion that was associated with politics and was not tolerant of Jews, heretics or other faiths.
    – It appears to me that when a religion is associated with politics and governing body, and is a type of religion that seeks new converts (some religions don't), and has control over army it had demonstrated to be “spread by a sword”, in both cases of Christianity and Islam starting approximately from the middle and late Medieval Period. (600-1300)

    I hope this helps

  6. I seem to recall reading someplace that the spread of Islam into sub-saharan Africa was done with missionaries.

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