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Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome Paperback – Oct 30 2007
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Contemplating the rapid spread of early Christianity, Lucian the Martyr marveled in the fourth century that "almost the greater part of the world is now committed to this truth, even whole cities." To explain Christianity's remarkable success in capturing the cities of the Roman Empire, Stark deploys an empirical social science that exposes the flaws in previous historical theorizing. By parsing records of church construction, inscriptions on tombs, and names on imperial contract permits, Stark converts plausible conjectures into testable hypotheses about the growth of Christianity in the 31 largest Roman cities. And while some of the statistically validated hypotheses fit within conventional wisdom, others compel fresh thinking. The traditional belief that Christianity spread through mass conversion, for instance, gives way to a numerically substantiated dynamics of person-to-person conversion. And despite recent acclaim for the Gnostics as the true early Christians, the evidence links the Gnostic impulse to dying pockets of stubborn paganism, not the rising new faith. Like Stark's Victory of Reason (2005), this book will spark controversy--the kind that attracts curious readers. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Pairing data with a fresh reading of scripture, this approach provides several surprises. . . . An intriguing read. (Kirkus Reviews)
Stark converts plausible conjectures into testable hypotheses about the growth of Christianity . . . this book will spark controversy. (ALA Booklist)
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It is all well and good to devise hypotheses to explain historical events, but they should not be accepted as truth unless they can be tested. Stark undertakes to test a number of historical hypotheses relating to the rise of early Christianity, and does so through statistical analysis. This entails a lot of spadework, but the results are worthwhile.
A lot of Stark's findings validate many of the hypotheses of previous scholarship, and this should lead to no controversy. A lot of his findings invalidate the hypotheses of "cutting edge" Biblical scholarship, and this should mean that Stark's book won't be profiled on prime time television.
Some of Stark's more interesting findings are: (1) Orthodox Christianity, not "Gnosticism" or some other "Lost Christianity" was the original form of the religion. (2) "Gnosticism" was a loopy, lunatic fringe blend of paganism and Christianity. (3) Orthodox Christians did not persecute paganism into oblivion. (4) Pentecost most likely did not result in 3,000 newly baptized Christians, but simply 3,000 wet Jews and pagans. (5) Paul did not invent Christianity and actually had very little to do with the spread of Christianity throughout the Empire. (6) Paul was much more successful in converting Jews to Christianity than in converting Gentiles. (7) Hellenized Jews provided large numbers of Christian converts during the first four centuries of Christianity.
Stark's writing, as always, is entertaining, educational, and thought provoking.
Among Stark's CONVINCING CONCLUSIONS:
(1) Christianity spread not through mass conversions but through the example and witness of rank-and-file believers who traveled for commercial and other reasons. (2) Sea travel was more important than Roman roads in facilitating the spread of Christianity and other eastern religions. (3) Christianity found especially fertile soil in large cities--especially port cities and Hellenized cities. (5) Cybele and Isis worship were important stepping stones--ritual, emotional, and intellectual--for many pagans who came to embrace Christianity. (5) Gnosticism (a dubious category) and Demiurgical religions were neither offshoots of Judaism nor early and widespread forms of Christianity but amalgams of paganism and Greek philosophy (especially Platonism) that had little appeal to most Greco-Romans, whether Christian or pagan. (6) Mithraism was never a serious competitor to Christianity but a male-dominated army cult with little appeal to the masses. (7) Constantine was not responsible for the triumph of Christianity. (8) It was the emperor Julian (the "Apostate") who exacerbated tensions between pagans and Christians. (9) Paganism did not end quickly but persisted into the fifth and sixth centuries.
Much less convincing--because they are not supported with much argument or evidence--are Stark's hypothesis cum theses concerning Judaism and the mission of Paul.
Among Stark's MOST DUBIOUS AND LEAST SUPPORTED CLAIMS:
(1) JUDAISM WAS A MISSIONARY RELIGION (pp. 6-7; etc). This claim is weakly supported by appeals to a few Old Testament verses and a statement of the Medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides. It is not backed up by any evidence from Jewish sources of the Greco-Roman period and fails to consider the best scholarship on the subject (e.g., Martin Goodman 1994, Mission and Conversion; Shaye Cohen 1999, The Beginnings of Jewishness; Scott McKnight 1991, Light among the Gentiles: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period).
(2) PAUL DIRECTED MOST OF HIS MISSIONARY EFFORTS AT DIASPORA JEWS AND NOT GENTILES (pp. 120-139). This claim is belied by the testimony of Paul's own letters. It relies on an uncritical reading of the book of Acts. Paul certainly attended synagogues (see 2 Cor. 11:24) and no doubt evangelized Jews when he did (see 1 Cor. 9:19-21), but Gentiles were his first and primary target audience (e.g., Gal. 1:15-17; 2:7-9; Rom. 11:13). His letters simply to not reflect that he had spent the prior decade or two evangelizing Jews.
(3) PAUL DEMANDED THAT JEWISH CHRISTIANS CEASE OBSERVING THE LAW (pp. 130, 169). This claim is asserted without argument or appeal to evidence. It has no basis in either Paul's letters or even the book of Acts. Indeed, Acts suggests that did not make such demands of Jewish believers in Jesus (see Acts 21:20-26). Paul opposed forcing Gentile believers in Jesus to practice Torah, but no source tells us that he told Jewish believers to stop observing it. Paul regarded Torah observance as such as a matter of indifference (Gal. 5:5; 6:15; 1 Cor. 7:19). His view was that ritual Torah observance ("the works of the Law") does not make anyone, Jew or Gentile, members of God's covenant people or secure their final salvation (Galatians 3; Romans 3-4).
(4) JUDAIZING ACTIVITY IN THE 4TH AND 5TH CENTURY PROVES THAT SIGNIFICANT NUMBERS OF JEWS CONTINUTED TO CONVERT TO CHRISTIANITY INTO LATE ANTIQUITY (pp. 136-139). What Judaizing activity (following Jewish customs) more likely suggests is the reverse: Judaism (or at least aspects of Jewish observance) continued to attract Christians into late antiquity. Further, in patristic literature the label "Judaizing" often has nothing to do with following Jewish customs; in the writings of some church fathers, it is a polemical label for Christians whose Christology is too "low" or who interpret the Old Testament literally instead of figuratively (see, e.g., Shaye Cohen 1999, The Beginnings of Jewishness; Michelle Murray 2004, Playing a Jewish Game: Gentile Christian Judaizing in the First and Second Centuries C.E.).
(5) ANTI-JUDAISM SUGGESTS CLOSE PROXIMITY TO JUDAISM AND OPPOSITION TO IT (e.g., p. 169). This is not necessarily the case. Like the phenomenon of Judaizing, anti-Judaism need not imply direct contact with or influence from Jews or Judaism. As often as not, it looks like a matter of intra-Christian theological disputes and seems not have been encouraged by non-Christian Jews.
In sum, as a scholar of early Judaism and early Christianity, I find Stark mostly persuasive when he writes about early Christianity's relations to Greco-Roman paganism. But I find him wrongheaded in much of what he says about Judaism and Paul.
Which is why Rodney Stark is such a breath of fresh air. He ask the big questions, then hunts down the answers using sociology and statistics, not the usual tools of the biblical scholar. In book after book, he wrote en about early Christianity in ways that challenge old stereotypes, and did it in his typically brisk, clear style.
Within the first few pages in "Cities of God" he argues that, "Only monotheism can generate the level of commitment to mobilize the rank and file in missionizing activities" (p 13). And he cites the studies showing how conversion takes place.
Against the usual argument that the power of Christianity came from its promises of eternal life, Start says that the faith spread because of the way it could "provide an antidote to life's miseries here and now. The truly revolutionary aspect of Christianity lay in moral imperatives" (p 30). A breathtaking statement.
Stark also overturns all the usual liberal dogmas about how Gnosticism represents a more authentic Christianity. As Stark tartly notes, Gnostic manuscripts to not denote social movements. On the contrary. "Gnostic writers are known to have gathered only small schools of devotees" (p 143). They were not an alternative Christianity. They were paganism's attempt to paganize Christianity.
This is a well written and well argued book that deserves a wide audience.
Stark takes many contemporary historians, like the late Arthur Schlesinger, for their devotion to personal ideologies than to fact. As an example, Stark thoroughly dissects Schlesinger's misunderstanding of Andrew Jackson's popularity in a Pulitzer Prize winning book.
With that quality in mind, Stark debunks many popular, but apparently false, myths about early Christianity. Factoids: many Roman emperors appointed many pagans to political office during the ascendancy of Christianity in Rome, contrary to the myth that Christians forced paganism out of existence.
The book is rich in historical detail, some of it drawn from surprising sources: the inscriptions on ancient tombstones. The basic theme is that Christianity became an urban religion that ultimately conquered the failing Roman Empire. Another surprise: the larger cities developed Christian populations sooner then smaller cities.
Overall, for any student of history, Stark provides a valuable contribution. There is no overtly religious content in the book, so people with an aversion or animus to religion can read it comfortably.
Stark begins by given descriptions of all the significant cities in the ancient Roman world. These descriptions alone are quite valuable and provide insight into the Roman world and day-to-day life within it. But his collection of cities is just the beginning, as Stark goes on to explain how they became Cities of God.
The subtitled of the book is "The Real Story of How Christianity Became Urban Movement and Conquered Rome." True enough, but another subtitle could be, "How to Use Statistics to Test Historical Propositions." Stark is a big believer in the use of statistics and math to solve histories elusive problems. The extent to which he succeeds I will leave to readers and his peers statisticians. But the book is an interesting read just to see how such an approach to history could work. For my part, I thought some of Stark's propositions, such as that cities closer to Jerusalem were Christianized sooner, that Hellenistic cities Christianized sooner than Roman ones, and that large cities Christianized sooner than smaller ones, were well established.
I am less confident in his conclusions about certain mystery religions "paving the way" for monotheism. Even if the numbers reflect ancient reality, the conclusion does not seem to follow from the premise. However, Stark's arguments about Gnosticism and related heresies being late and derivative are well taken.
Stark also continues to advance two theories he mentioned in his The Rise of Christianity. First, he emphasizes relationships and the practical usefulness of a religion over its beliefs and dogma in explaining its spread. In Cities of God, he seems to give more importance to belief than before. This is a useful corrective, as belief often helps explain the emphasis on relationship and practical usefulness in a religion. Second, Stark believes that the Gentile mission was not all that successful at first and that most early Christians were Jewish Diaspora converts. He gives more evidence for his theory here, but anyone looking to test the theory will still have to look elsewhere for fuller discussions.
All told, Stark makes some good arguments, fails to prove others but raises good questions in the process, and leaves the reader with more knowledge and insight than when he or she started.